Why All My Characters Are Ladies

Leather equipment, eh?

by Vivienne Chan

I distinctly remember that, over a decade ago, I got my hands on a copy of Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor. While I can’t articulate precisely when, how or why I came to own this game, I do recall – with shocking clarity – the party creation process. This type of RPG wasn’t new to me: at that point I had thoroughly enjoyed Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. But this was the first time I could create my own party from scratch, right down to how they all looked.

First off, to my teenage, adolescent mind, I remember thinking that there was an awful lot of boobage going on on all the lady characters. Whether it was an elf in a lace-up bodice (that was 90% lace) or a human female with a keyhole cleavage display (and an exposed midriff to boot), I know that I thought that they were AWESOME. Not only were they going to appear in this game, but they were super pretty and had super gorgeous bodies.

It was like playing with Barbie dolls who murder the shit out of monsters and bad guys.

And so I built a party of four ludicrously beautiful and scantily clad women: two brunettes, a redhead, and a blonde. Two elves and two humans. The party was largely successful, though I think I just up and stopped playing the game about 75% of the way through.

This was the first memory I have of creating a custom set of characters that would feature as the main protagonists in a video game. I’m sure I must have played other ones (I know I played Mixed Up Mother Goose back in the day and I THINK you got to pick your gender then, but I can’t be certain), but this is the one that sticks out in my mind as being particularly iconic, because from that point on, wherever there was an opportunity to choose the gender of my character(s), I’d always go with a female.

Some years ago, I know I wondered if I might have been a lesbian (or at least bisexual) due to my preoccupation with gorgeous women. I’d look at them way more than I’d look at guys, and I played only absolutely drop-dead gorgeous women in videogames. Hearing my male friends talk about their choices, many of them (though not all of them) preferred to play ladies because they got to look at a hot chick while playing the game. I wondered – for much longer than I care to admit – whether or not I did the same for similar reasons.

But then I realized that no, I was definitely not into girls that way, and my preoccupation with beautiful ladies – whether those I saw in the world or those I played in games – was driven almost entirely by envy. This likely stems from a childhood where I was repeatedly told I was too fat, too large, too big, too tall, etc etc etc. Being 5’8” with broad shoulders in countries like Singapore and Hong Kong can make an otherwise unspectacular, average-looking lady feel like Jabba the Hutt. So whenever I got to play beautiful girls in games, I leapt on the opportunity. A vicarious hotness, if you will.

I’m not just talking about memorable, leading femmes like Lara Croft or Samus (zero suit, heh). In UT2004 I always played the pretty human female option, in Marvel Ultimate Alliance I ran with all-female teams where I could, and in Guild Wars and my brief stint in WoW, all my characters were female, too. Even in the Soul Calibur, MvC, and other fighting games, I would gravitate toward the ladies, no matter how offensive their boobage. And, of course, all of my Shepards (except one, because I wanted to see why everyone wanted to sex Tali in ME2) has been a Femshep. And all of them have been drop-dead gorgeous.

As opposed to Kaitlin Tremblay, who wrote an excellent article about choosing monsters over ladies because she felt she couldn’t identify with ladies, I think I took my own dissociation with femininity fast and hard in the other direction. Kaitlin’s experience as a tomboy is a familiar story to me, having grown up being sporty, geeky, completely disinterested in makeup or fashion, and enjoying a variety of male-dominated interests. But where, to her credit, she acknowledged her discomfort and sought better representations for herself in games, I think my own personality and context pushed me to instead embrace those scantily clad, impossibly proportioned ladies because I didn’t look or feel or act like any of them… and I wanted to.

I’ve always been acutely aware that I do not fit traditional gender roles, but rather than being okay with that, I think I expressed my own sense of femininity with these female characters. I wanted to be them, to finally know what it was like to be a girl (a pretty one, even), and back in those days, my adolescent self didn’t mind that these were females written by men, because I also wanted to be desirable to men. If men wrote them, that meant that they desired them, so if I “was” them, that meant I’d be desirable too, right?

Ah, adolescence. I’ve outgrown most of that thinking now (thank the powers that be!), but for all I know, that line of thinking was one of the primary causes of my current body image issues. After all, I STILL play female characters whenever there is an option to do so.

My connection to female game characters is deeply complex. I’ve explored a tiny bit of that complexity in this article: I grew up a tomboy, I want to be beautiful. So I choose to play beautiful women in games. That I also love it when ladies kick ass and take names is probably another facet of that complexity. But by and large, my motivations are driven by envy and vicariousness. They are also deeply individual, defined by my context; your mileage may vary. And thus I invite you to turn my reflection inward: why do you play the characters you do? What do those reasons tell you about yourself? Does that change your perspective on the characters that represent you in games? Why or why not?

Further Reading: “My Ideal Female Lead” (Medium Difficulty)

“I Am Not Shepard” (Medium Difficulty)

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  • BitterAlmond

    This is pretty much exactly why every male enjoys playing as Marcus Fenix and all other big, tough, muscular heroes like him. There’s a reason the genre’s called “Fantasy”.

    • http://www.mediumdifficulty.com/ Karl Parakenings

      I don’t know about you, but I don’t much like Fenix and I sure as hell don’t want to look like him. He’s a walking trapezius muscle.

      • BitterAlmond

        Substitute “Marcus Fenix” with “Duke Nukem” (From 3D and not Forever, of course) or whatever other testosterone-heavy hero you DO like.

        • Doug Farrell

          You’re still assuming that every guy does aspire to looking like a walking slab of muscle and testosterone, which is what folks are disagreeing with.

    • http://twitter.com/WhamCalker CPW

      I wouldn’t say I love playing as Mr. Beefcake. Indeed I roll my eyes as he flops through cut-scenes, oozing a comical performance of masculinity. He only gets a pass because he’s voiced by Bender.

    • http://www.mediumdifficulty.com/ Kyle Carpenter

      I agree, except for one thing – I don’t think identification with Fenix has anything to do with his appearance. Instead, I think it has to do with his agency – he’s introduced as a legend, kills legions by himself, and shrugs it all off like it’s not such a big deal. I think in most cases, when we’re talking about “male” fantasies, we’re talking about “power” fantasies.

      What I think is really interesting about this article is that one of the key factors Vivienne observes is that the idea of being desirable was crucial to her fantasy. This is a facet of the way men want see themselves (see: AXE body spray commercials), but I would argue that again, this is expressed in terms of “power” (women instantly reduced to ravenous animals by the sheer animal magnetism of a dude with product in his hair).

      It’s a thin line, but I do think Vivienne illuminates something about points of access for identification with an avatar that may suggest something about the gendering of gaming. Not as an answer, mind, but a way of looking at things.

    • Alexander Timofeyev

      Except many men often play female characters, and it’s as hard for a man to identify with caricatures such as Marcus Fenix or Kratos as it is for women to identify with Bayonetta. Personally, I enjoy a more realistic male character, such as Nathan Drake, and think that more men would identify with, and want to be, Drake than Fenix.

      My first time choosing to play a female character was in KOTOR, and while that was motivated by my adolescent self preferring to spend 40 hours staring at a woman’s butt, I found it enjoyable and refreshing to play as a powerful and commanding female character. Maybe it’s a response to popular media’s abundance of stereotypically weak female characters in need of rescue, but I find myself usually picking to play as female characters as I too “love it when ladies kick ass and take names.”

  • http://rudolphthesnowdeer.myopenid.com/ Rudolf

    I think it’s very similar for most people. I look like a fat ogre in real life, but I spend lots of time making sure my male RPG characters are attractive.

  • Slothboy

    I often play as female characters when given the option. I’m not generally aroused by inconceivable video game boob physics, so I can’t say I do it for the sex appeal. I really think it is because I want some variety in my gaming. One does get tired of hearing an overly gruff male voice barking out one-liners. It’s nice to get some variance in the experience and playing as a female definitely helps.

    I also think on some level I find a badass woman MORE badass than a badass man. Yes I KNOW, I am showing that I am a victim to the concept of gender roles but I’m not saying women can’t be badasses. I’m saying it is less common and therefore more exceptional than just another beefcake male “hero”.

    The only times I don’t play as a female is in MMO situations. I don’t want to be hit on by pre-pubescent weasels just because I have Digital Double D’s. (In 3D).

    My only complaint is that what passes for adventuring gear on women in games is usually pretty stupid. Is there a reason my female fighter doesn’t think it is necessary to put armor on all of her person? Are her boobs somehow invulnerable to stabbing? Give me a break. If your breastplate, by necessity, is more shapely than Thorgar over there, that’s fine. But don’t tell me you think there is a tactical advantage to having a bare midriff.

  • http://www.facebook.com/peter.ebel Peter Ebel

    I usually play female characters, so I can evaluate just how much stupid was poured into the character design.

  • Herf Herfy

    You mentioned Planescape: Torment. +1 my dear, +1.