One couple, two perspectives, tons of geekery

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Princess's Garden: Beyond the Stereotype

Everyone is subjected to being stereotyped, male and female alike. However, I am sure that I am not alone in being dismayed when I come across one dimensional female characters based purely on a template. I’m not saying that it’s not equally as frustrating for men who encounter this problem, but I think, for women, it’s an issue that is a bit more pronounced considering that we’ve only recently started to get a foot hold in an industry that used to be primarily marketed toward a male audience. It’s as if the geek media has finally just discovered that girls like to kick back and whip out our d20 just as much as our guy friends.

Through the course of time, certain stereotypes have become a regular staple of female characters in geek media. Some of these may be a residual effect of a formerly male centric interest, while others are the result of women trying too hard to fight back against. While there shouldn’t be a pressure to play or create a character that is completely original, when we don’t go beyond a stereotype we are not stretching our creative muscles as gamers and writers. Archetypes are a good foundation, but they need to be shaped to form something with depth. To craft them into an interesting and balanced character.

While there are numerous stereotypes that exist, I have chosen to address three of the ones I see the most frequently. Let’s examine their pitfalls and how we, as a community, can strive to go beyond the stereotype.

The Damsel
This, more than any of the others on the list, is the stereotype that the majority of women rail against the most. It’s also the one that many starting players create. Why? Because many female gamers come into gaming through their significant others. They are often referred to as a “backpack” among gaming society.
The profile of The Damsel is a character that has little to no physical attributes, is dependent on other characters, and has minimal motivation or goals. They are frequently the love interest for another character and lack a clearly defined background. She appears helpless with no indication of ever trying to get involved or make her own choices.

The problem with this stereotype is that those playing The Damsel will often find that they feel alienated from the game and the other players. The reason for this is usually because of their dependence on others and weak concept design. Motivations, goals and a fully conceptualized background help give a character the fuel they need to be an active participant. Without this drive, other players may become exhausted with trying to constantly work in ways to get you involved or having to rescue you every five minutes.

Those who want to play a more classic heroine role shouldn’t let this deter them though, because there are ways to construct this archetype into a fully fleshed out character. One of the best ways to do this is by giving your character a useful, non-physical based skill set, whether it be diplomacy, martial tactics, economic strategy, first aid, empathy, academics or linguistics. Giving yourself an edge is one way to make your character a part of the team. Not everyone can be the fighter. Sometimes you need someone to be able to talk down the monster or translate ancient documents.

An example of this can be found in fan favorite, Princess Leia. We are presented with a character who needs to be rescued and upon first look seems to be a damsel in distress, but we soon learn that she possesses a strong moral code and sense of self. She conducts herself with confidence and is able to take command of military units. While she might not always jump out directly into the fray, she’s still involved in the action.

Princess Leia

The Gun Bunny
Next we come to the ever-popular Gun Bunny. This stereotype is a two-fold construction from guys wanting to salivate over busty girls in tight leather and women wanting to escape the confines of The Damsel stereotype they have been presented with for too long.

Gun Bunnies are usually defined by their martial prowess. They are often have no flaws and no rational excuse for their powers and/or skills. In addition, they can often be found going the lone wolf route in an attempt to display just how cool their character is.

These stereotypes become an issue due to their frequent unwillingness to work with a group and also for their unwillingness to show any faults. While it’s tempting for many girls to play someone “empowered”, I think the idea of inner strength gets blurred with a total focus on physical skills. Gaming is a social pastime and as a result, alienating yourself from the group doesn’t do anyone any favors.

If you want to play a more social based character, it is possible to play this archetype effectively without having to compromise integrity. The goal of creating a character like this should focus on making the character be realistic. Flaws and short comings are universal and your character shouldn’t be exempt. This goes beyond having an eye patch. We’re talking about true flaws and insecurities that can truly affect the character. In addition to this, to make this character endearing, you’ll want to craft a believable backstory and be approachable.

Personally, I find Joss Wheadon to be one of the best writers of believable female characters. One of his characters that I think is a perfect example of the Gun Bunny done right is in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Faith. Faith starts out as a very likeable girl. Everyone immediately gets along with her, she doesn’t spend her time skulking in a corner – she’s out there making jokes and having fun with the others. We also get to see some great moments of vulnerability that display a near crippling self- loathing. In this, she transcends from being a run-of-the-mill antagonist and becomes a character you can relate to.


The Crazy Girl
Those who don’t’ want to be a physical powerhouse like The Gun Bunny nor a delicate and demure Damsel, will often turn to a third option – The Crazy Girl. From happy homicidal psychopaths to excessively traumatized teens, the Crazy Girl has become a recent favorite among gamer girls and geek media alike.
The Crazy Girl can often be found laughing manically and rambling incoherently in a corner. Their random actions are focused on silly antics. Their purpose seems to be exclusively to seek attention and offer, often disruptive, humor. They usually have little other defining characteristic aside from their insanity.

The problem is that many players find this stereotype to be annoying. And with good reason. The Crazy Girl has a habit of disrupting otherwise meaningful and emotional charged interactions for a chance to throw in a joke or make a scene. Constantly diverting attention to yourself can ruin a moment and rub other players the wrong way.

If you want to play a Crazy Girl, there are ways to pull it off without becoming disruptive. One of the key things is learning to be subtle. A constant barrage of flamboyant antics doesn’t give you room for displaying levels of clarity and psychosis. Sometimes it’s more unsettling to stare at someone blankly than to pull out a fish from your shirt and whacking someone on the head with it. Another thing you can do to keep everyone on their toes is to have moments of utter normalcy. These moments will make moments of insanity that much more impacting because you display a level of unpredictability without relying on humor.

A good example of this type of character that would fit in well with a game is Luna Lovegood. She is clearly “not all there” but she’s still an active member of the team. Sometimes her dialogue is nonsense, but it is sprinkled with wisdom and she rarely hogs the spotlight. She has subtle quirks and eccentric beliefs that cause her to be unsettling without being over the top.

Luna Lovegood

While those are only three examples, I think we should constantly seek to go beyond all stereotypes we may encounter. We should always strive to delve further into our characters and craft fully realized concepts. Challenging ourselves to push the beyond the limits of popularity and convention is how we will continue to grow and make a solid presence for ourselves in the gaming community.


  1. Good first post.

    I agree with you on the need for better female characters, in literature for geeks as well as in gaming. Some of it I think is simply a product of the myths that the games were based on originally. Especially with the damsel character type.

    I haven't seen all (much) of Buffy, but I've never particularly liked Joss's take on females. Their may be exceptions, but often the characters of his I've heard people claim are strong, are only strong in the physical sense. Inside they're weak and hollow, needing other people to help decide things for them, and prone to going off to sulk in the corner every time things go weird. As I said, limited experience, but it is the impression I've gotten, and I see it all over the place.

  2. Hey Princess, good post! I think it's worth mentioning that a common complaint about the portrayal of female characters, especially in action/adventure/fantasy genres, is that they are essentially men with tits. Oddly enough, it's not just men who fall into this trap; I've seen girl gamers create this kind of character too. We have been programmed with the following equation: effective/tough = masculine. The trick is to create female characters that maintain their femininity despite taking part in traditionally male roles/activities. Second is not to pervert that femininity into a wet dream parody of itself. Some of the best examples of this kind of characterization I can think of are the characters of Boomer and, especially, President Laura Roslin on Battlestar Galactica (Starbuck and sexy-blonde-cylon not so much). Some other good examples are Thorn from Jeff Smith's Bone as well as pretty much every female character from any Terry Moore comic. A good example of a character that plays an entirely feminine role without being diminished by it is found, oddly enough, in a James Bond film: Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale may not be able to kick ass, but she is entirely Bond's equal in will, smarts and savy. Somehow she also still finds time to be absurdly sexy. Joss Whedon, as you said, does a pretty good job of this too, though personally I'm as (if not more) impressed in this regard by Adelle Dewitt as I am by Faith.

  3. @ A.L. - Hmm, I would tend to disagree. I personally find his females rather well rounded. I think he is very good at showcasing vunerability within his characters, both male and female. I'm not so sure he is making them sulky, weak and/or hollow as showing universal flaws and fears that everyone has. I don't think he limits this to his female characters. So for me they ring true, but to each their own :)

    @optiumsnakeyes - Agreed! Have you read "Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins? The main character Katniss is such a well written and very realistic female character (which is refreshing to find in the world of YA literature these days). And, yes, Adelle Dewitt is very interesting. I'm very intrigued by that character. We just finished Season 1 not long ago and are looking forward to checking out Season 2.

    ~ The Princess

  4. Great post, Princess :)

    I will say, though, in some instances, it is possible to use these stereotypes as a portal for exploring that stereotype as a weakness in the character. For example, creating an overly tough 'Gun Bunny' type who may come off that way, but harbors inner reserves. Or a Damsel character who evolves into something more. As long as that is not -all- you have for a character, I'd say that you evolved out of the normal two-dimensional portrayal. The hardest of those to shake is the crazy, though: too many people love to indulge in that without understanding how to do it right in the first place.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...