What is a "Positive Female Character"?

Now that the collective ire of the Internet has settled down after the, well, let's call it spirited debate regarding Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games", I figured now would be a prudent time to add my two cents. For those unaware (or too lazy to click on the link!), the Kickstarter was an initiative of a FeministFrequency.com writer and critic with the goal of "exploring female character stereotypes" in our favourite medium. She was subject to a litany of misogynistic filth, but also challenged with several legitimate questions--both (primarily the former, these are YouTube comments, after all) can be found en masse here. She managed to rake in a whopping $158,922, far exceeding her requested $6,000 figure, and supporters and critics alike are waiting to hear what she has to say about everything from "The Fighting F#@k Toy" to "Women as Reward". Love her or hate her, she's been a major voice in the industry for the past few weeks.

What really intrigues me, however, is the scheduled topic of her 11th video: "Positive Female Characters!" What exactly does Ms. Sarkeesian mean by this? What makes a particular female character a "positive" or "good" one, as opposed to a "negative" or "bad" one? Essentially: what is our measure for assessing the positivity/negativity of female characters in games?

A good place to start is actually with her critics. Not the vitriol--"Back to the kitchen cunt" doesn't qualify as a legitimate contribution to the dialogue, or, well, as an actual thought--but rather something along the lines of "Men are stereotyped in games all the time. Look at Mass Effect's James Vega, God of War's Kratos, or Gears of War's Marcus Fenix: brawny and entirely unrealistic. What about the confidence and hypersexuality of characters like Dante, or the strong-and-silent types like Cloud? Men don't complain about being pigeonholed into the narrow categorizations, so why are women so upset?" That is a legitimate argument, but one that I think has a couple of problems.

First off, where's the sense in saying "Well, we're both subject to the same conditions, but most of us are cool with it--you should be too"? If both men and women are being stereotyped, but men are generally OK with it, how does that rob a female gamer's right to be upset? Secondly, and more importantly, let's take a look at typical male character tropes: strong and confident, usually leaders. Females? Well I think it would be a bit dramatic to call Super Mario Bros. a discriminatory title, but the motif of "damsels in distress" like Peach or Zelda is getting a bit tired. Perhaps men don't mind being stereotyped because it is usually as a male of extraordinary strength, whereas most women in games are one-note characters characterized by their helplessness or sexuality.

That, to me, is an example of a "bad" female character: one with a personality that is flat and static. They don't undergo any meaningful growth or character development, and continuously harp on one theme, over and over again. "Look at how sexy I am," or "Look at how much help I need," or even "Look at how strong I am,": they're all equally guilty. So, in truth, what makes a bad female character is the same thing that makes a bad male character: lack of dynamism and "roundness".

Marcus Fenix is a good male character, truth be told. He is originally portrayed a musclebound meathead with a bad streak, and not much else. And if you don't look much deeper, that might be all that you see. But keep playing and you see that he's capable of empathy, sadness, and vulnerability. He is a devoted friend and son, and goes out of his way to take care of his own. Hell, he's actually a fairly smart tactician. He has highs and lows, and his personal story is well-paced.

Bayonetta, I would argue, is an example of a good female character. Yes, she is undeniably hypersexualied, to the point of parody. But there's nothing wrong with that: she's confident, and proud of her aesthetics. She is not a weak woman in need of rescue; to the contrary, she dominates enemies and uses her sexuality as a key strength. But, more importantly, you can see her motherly instincts in her interactions with Cereza, evidencing that she runs the full gamut of human emotions. Like with Marcus, many might glance at her and peg her as another sexed-up floozy, but anyone willing to get to know her will realize that she is a dynamic character that develops along a very clear spectrum throughout the game.

Bayonetta shows way more skin than say, Princess Peach, but sexuality alone is a very narrow measure to assess the "positivity" of a female character. That so many people get so hung up on the external appearance of female characters is a huge issue. Again, positvity is dynamism: a positive female character is one that undergoes meaningful and honest character development. Another great example would be Lara Croft in the upcoming Tomb Raider, who we are told will evolve from a scared girl to a powerful woman, while dealing with some primarily feminine challenges (I don't care what Crystal Dynamics calls it, that gameplay footage portrayed blatant sexual assault) along the way. Even Chell, Portal's silent protagonist (who looks to be a subject for Ms. Sarkeesian's "Positive Female Characters!"), does not represent a "positive" female character to me--more of a neutral one. I loved Portal just as much as the next guy, but she doesn't really undergo any meaningful character development, does she?

More dynamic female protagonists in games will undoubtedly get more females into the community, which is the reason why all of this is so important. Female gamers can bring unique visions to the industry, and help spark further innovation. Can you imagine a world without Kim Swift? I sure as hell can't.

So when Ms. Sarkeesian makes her video about positive female characters, I hope that she uses this sort of scale to measure positive female characters. The good ones aren't just the ones that are strong and confident, but rather the dynamic ones: the ones who can be all that and so much more.

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