This is yet another post about women in WoW.
I wasn’t going to write this but then whilst reading the news about the tragic events in California, I found myself being redirected to a number of sites where the venom spewed out against women made me feel sick. I learnt that my worth is entirely dependent on the eggs inside me, that as a white, educated women I’m letting the planet down by not reproducing and that my husband is a weak pathetic man for wanting our marriage to be a partnership of equals. I know these are extreme views and that I’ve seen the same sort of rhetoric from the other side of the spectrum in the shape of one of my tutors at University who when drunk once admitted to thinking we should exterminate men having first harvested their sperm but couple that with Blizzard’s attitudes as vocalized by Rob Pardo and I can’t help feeling we have a huge problem. You can read a transcript of some of the interview with Rob Pardo here as well as an interesting article on the subject. The whole interview can be listened to here.
The Comic defense
I read a lot of comics too as a child/in my early teens. My father has always been fond of routine, in fact sometimes growing up I think he forgot I was his daughter, not one of his men and so every Saturday at 2pm, when my mother and I returned from shopping in which ever town we were currently residing, we would head on the base for coffee (my parents) and cherry coke (for me, the only day of the week I got a fizzy drink until I was 16). Daddy would buy every newspaper he could lay his hands on and I would get one or two comics. Now because my father struggled to tell the difference between a 10 year old girl and a 20 year old squaddie with tattoos and a crew cut, he would pay for what ever comics I put on the counter and my tastes quickly changed from the likes of Mandy to 2000AD, the Eagle and Wildcat. I fell in love with Judge Anderson, Tyranny Rex and Halo Jones because they gave me hope, I could be a master criminal, a soldier or whatever I wanted to be. Yes, they all have sexualised bodies but then so do the men in these comics. For every women in a skintight jumpsuit, there is a man with his top off showing his six pack to the world but the important bit, at least to me was the characters themselves. Women who are respected in their fields, women who are capable, competent, powerful and treated as equals. If reading comics taught the Blizzard staff to draw women as sexy and sexualised then it should have also taught them to write women as more than just helpmates, mothers and stereotypes or are we just meant to assume they just looked at the pictures?
It’s also a self fulfilling problem, Rob and the other Blizzard designers use the comics they grew up with as a defense for not trying to portray women as anything other than mothers and wives in skimpy clothing which then leads the next generation of developers to grow up playing WoW and say “oh we grew up playing WoW.. this is how we see women”.
It’s all women’s fault
“But it’s a struggle for us because the diversity within our workplace is unbalanced. “
I read English Literature at University and in my final year, one of my tutors came into class and handed around a sheet of paper covered in paragraphs from various books. None of them were labelled and most of them were fairly obscene missing out character names. Our task was to try and determine from around 100 words whether each one was written by a man or a woman. Naturally we assumed that we would be able to tell the difference but apart from the ones we could identify because we recognised the text, we failed miserably resorting to guessing. In order to create interesting female characters you do not need a vagina, literature teaches us this over and over again. Shakespeare created a diverse range of female characters, from the villains, to the strong sensible women who saved the day to the simpering milkmaid types. Brecht’s Mother Courage got a German feminist newspaper named after her for a spell and Dickens wrote some fabulous female characters. I particularly loved the calculated cruelty of Miss Havisham and the sheer wickedness of Madame Defarge. Yes, you could argue that both of these are simply portrayals of Mother Nature at her most capricious but you can’t deny their fascination. I could go on with more modern examples but I feel if men could manage it when women didn’t have the vote, then there is no excuse now.
I suppose what angers me is that I feel it’s a gross simplification to assume you can’t write strong female characters because you aren’t female. The ability to make decisions, to be driven by something other than hormones, to be capable and competent, these are not the preserve of men only. Women are not just emotions on legs, we are as diverse as the characters we are asking for. I played with action men just as much as I played with barbie dolls, I had toy guns and toy rolling pins, I loved sharks and dinosaurs more than fluffy toys.
If setting out to make a character female and strong is too hard, then write a strong character you are happy with and make it female. The characteristics of a leader don’t change whether it’s a man or a woman, the only real difference is the physical body. If we look at female politicians versus male, the vast majority of what drives them is the same, ambition, ego, arrogance.
When I first saw the teaser video for MoP, I thought of Conan Doyle’s the Lost World. That Victorian “boys trip” into the great unknown with epic mustaches and lots of testosterone. Fast forward to now and it seems we’re doing Victorian Literature yet again for Warlords. Now that would be ok (and I use the word loosely) if this was roughly 1900, when women were still effectively property, disenfranchised and not treated too dissimilarly to children. However it’s not, the rest of the world has mostly marched on. We aren’t going back to our Draenor and so if the timeline has changed in some ways, why can’t there have been some seismic changes in terms of female characters. Couldn’t Griselda Blackhand have taken on her father in a coup d’etat and won. Why does Yrel need a lover who happens to be both dominant and male? Take Onyxia, she started out wonderfully, lurking in Stormwind Keep clearly plotting to overthrow the kingdom and ended up in a cave in a marsh surrounded by eggs….. I think that’s what is frustrating, Blizzard do try, take it so far and then revert to type. Tyrande cleaved to Malfurion and became a Victorian stereotype with an overdose of emotions thrown in to make Varian look good, having previously managed to lead her people absolutely fine. Jaina, Sylvanas, Mankrik’s wife… the list goes on.
In conclusion, I know all creative endeavors are personal. I know having something you slaved over, shedding blood, swear and tears for criticized is painful but ultimately Blizzard have a massive audience and a percentage of this are young. Just as Blizzard learnt from the comics they read as boys, this next generation will learn from WoW. We all want WoW to be fun, after all, gaming is a release from reality. It’s something we do to unwind and to relax. However “fun” and “We’re not trying to bring in serious stuff, or socially relevant stuff, or actively trying to preach for diversity or do things like that” are not mutually exclusive. In fact I’d argue that managing to write half a dozen female characters that women can identify with shouldn’t be classed as “preaching”, merely good storytelling with one eye on the future generations. Once again we return to Adrienne Rich and her poem “Diving into the Wreck“.
a book of myths in which our names do not appear.
Gaming is not the preserve of men, any more than sewing is done only by women and the sooner companies realise this, the better for all of us. Going back to my first paragraph, when you have men out there who for whatever reason refuse to see women as anything more than their bodies, having these ideas reinforced by mainstream gaming companies like Blizzard is dangerous. We’re not asking for real world parallels to be drawn, just for Blizzard to accept that their excuses are not good enough and to try and improve their track record when it comes to anything which isn’t male, heterosexual and macho.
I don’t need to see Emmelina Pankhurst, Gnome inventor and Suffragnome chaining herself to railings in Ironforge although to be fair that would be pretty awesome.