Home > Mastering the Game > The Female of the Cliché is More Deadly than the Male

The Female of the Cliché is More Deadly than the Male

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post in the Character Building series where I made a character for a female player in a fantasy setting. As I was writing it, I found myself really having to work to avoid a lot of the stereotypes that traditionally accompany female characters in the sort of action-driven fictional settings that serve as the template for role-playing games. Here are a few of the problems that I encountered:

Female Character == Love Interest

Think of every action movie you’ve ever seen. Did it have a female protagonist? Did she end up in a romantic relationship with one of the male characters? I thought so. This pattern especially holds true in fantasy fiction, an unfortunate tradition begun by Saint Tolkien and maintained by all who followed him.

This is not to say that romantic relationships in role-playing are a bad thing. If you as a GM are comfortable with it, and it will increase the fun for the player or players involved, that’s terrific. The problem is that there is frequently an assumption that if there is a female player, there must be some sort of romance. The same phenomenon occurs, incidentally, with homosexual players. As soon as the sexual identity of the player (and in most cases, the character that they choose to play) differs from the default, it is unfortunately easy for the GM and fellow players to define them by this characteristic.

This is partially the result of unconscious sexism, a problem that pervades society. But there’s also an aspect of RPGs that aggravates and amplifies it. Unlike “real” people, characters in role-playing games have an explicit list of characteristics intended to define them. If your character has a fear of heights, then it’s expected that the GM will work to create a situation where you find yourself on top of a high building. If they have a hatred of Orcs, then Orcs are likely to make an appearance. If the GM doesn’t create a situation where this characteristic matters, then it might as well not be on the character sheet. Similarly, if your character is an unusually pacifistic member of a race of flesh-eating monsters, they can expect to be treated with hostility by strangers. When a character has a sexual orientation that differs from the default, that feels like a character trait, and most GMs will reflexively make it matter somehow in the story.

Girls Can’t Be _________

The most common variation on this one is “Girls can’t be tanks.” Your female player wants to play a fighter? So she uses poisoned knives, right? Or perhaps whips, or a lasso? I don’t have too much more to add here – just be on the lookout for this one. When working with a female player to make a character, always ask yourself “Would I give the same suggestion to a male player?”

Gentle Healers or Vicious Assassins

This is kind of the roleplaying equivalent of the Madonna/Whore complex. So let’s imagine that there is a spectrum of “goodness” for role-playing characters. On one end there are the lily white heroes and on the other end are the dastardly villains.  When most people envision a female protagonist, they assume that that person is less likely to be violent and more likely to be compassionate towards others, especially children. On the spectrum of role-playing characters, this places them pretty far on the heroic end. If the player strays from this archetype, deciding for instance that their character doesn’t like children, then it clashes with peoples’ expectations. Because this decision rejects one aspect of the female hero archetype, people assume that the character rejects all of the aspects and assign them to the other most common female archetype in fiction – the coldhearted, manipulative villain.

People naturally compare and categorize. When we meet a person, we automatically compare them with other people that we’ve known and react accordingly. This is especially true when we are consumers of fiction. You see the cop who works around the rules, and you immediately know without being shown what that character is like. He’s going to be a tough guy with a soft side. If you then see that character kick a puppy, you immediately reassign him to a new category – he’s a dirty cop and a brute. With male characters, there are a wide variety of male archetypes to choose from, so any character choice is likely to be a variation on one of them.

With female characters, there are really only three archetypes. There’s the femme fatale villain type, with an optional soft spot for the male hero. Morgana LaFey, Catwoman, Cruella DeVille, the blonde in every noir film. We have the gentle caring love interest who brings out the soft side of our male hero and gives him someone to rescue. Maid Marion, Mary Jane Watson, Gwenivere. In more recent years, we have a third archetype: the woman who kicks ass. Ripley, GI Jane, Angelina Jolie in any action movie. It’s important to make sure that your players feel like they can play someone who is more than a just a stock version of one of these archetypes.

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Categories: Mastering the Game
  1. July 27, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Excellent post. I find this particularly timely since I DM for a group of 9 that includes a female player and character. From previous GMing mistakes, I have made a conscious effort to not make a big deal of her gender (except for one time when I needed the bad guy to really come off like a pompous @$$hole and so I had him explicitly objectify her), but she and her husband – another player – went ahead and did it anyway. They’re doing a big brother/little sister sort of dynamic so it’s not quite as blatant but it makes me wonder if women players are generally as guilty of this as male players.

    • Stewart
      July 27, 2010 at 12:15 pm

      Glad you liked it. I think that most sexism stems from societal messages and values that people learn from an early age. As I tried to point out in the post, there are only a few female archetypes that appear in “action fiction,” so there aren’t a lot of role models to choose from. As such, women are just as likely to buy into sexist beliefs, at least initially. Where the gender difference really begins to matter, in my experience, is when it comes to individuals recognizing those negative societal values and rejecting them — women have more to lose, so they are more likely to notice and work against the unfair treatment. Men benefit from (or at least aren’t penalized by) the sexist default, and therefore are slower to notice it and/or recognize it’s negative effects.

      In the end though, our job as GMs isn’t to make our players realize that they are subconsciously subscribing to sexist roles; our job is to maximize the fun for the players. If your player is enjoying her experience, that’s what important.

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