I read Ubisoft’s explanation as to why there would be no playable female characters in the next installment of Assassin’s Creed without surprise. I merely raised an eyebrow when I read a male commentator who refused to believe that women played anything other than facebook games and I didn’t blink when a male colleague of mine claimed that men never want to play female characters in video games. In fact I nearly let the fact that I’m so used to being told I have no place in this environment (other than healing my husband in games with cute graphics that obviously he only plays to indulge my childlike mind) stop me from saying anything on the topic. Then I realized just when Assassin’s Creed Unity is set ….
When I think of Assassins and the French Revolution, one person comes to mind. I studied the history of art at school and in particular we covered the French Neo-Classical style. It was through the work of Jacques-Louis David, I first came across the name of Charlotte Corday, the woman who assassinated Marat in his bath with a kitchen knife.
Posthumously nicknamed l’ange de l’assassinat by Alphonse de Lamartine she was guillotined for her politically motivated act. After her death, her corpse was checked to see whether or not she was a virgin because the authorities refused to believe that a woman would act like this without a man pulling her strings. Just like Joan of Arc before her, they wanted to write her off as unclean, as a cancer which could be controlled before it spread to infect good docile women. Just like Joan, however, she was found to be intact and the regime had to face the unpalatable truth that women can and do kill.
Interestingly enough, given the current debate she caught the imagination of male artists en masse. The painting above is by Paul Baudry and the perspective is definitely on her, not Marat slumped in his bath with this papers. Does she look like a killer, no and it’s impressive that not a drop of splatter marrs her dress. Edvard Munch came up with a rather disturbing work on the subject in which Charlotte is naked and Jules Aviat has her hiding behind the curtain looking like a lamb to the slaughter. Then we have Jean Joseph Weerts’s focus on her arrest and other works of her being interrogated. There are paintings of her just after the act, paintings of her in jail and sketches and cartoons of her en-route to the guillotined. Perhaps it was the nature of the crime which thrilled them, a vulnerable and one assumes naked man in bath stabbed (or penetrated) by a woman in an age where such behaviour would be deemed unnatural. In some, like the above she is portrayed as the victim or as France herself (implied above by her proximity to the map of France and her shadow falling across it) and in others, she’s barely human.
I’m currently playing Wolfenstein and I have no issue whatsoever with the fact that my character looks like this:
Character customization is not a thing in the game, killing people in many different ways yes, choosing what colour shirt to wear whilst doing so, no, Everyone who plays it will look the same and that’s fine, after all Blazkowicz and I have a history together. Do I need a female character to play a game, no anymore than I need a female protagonist to enjoy a book or a film but when a studio pushes the customization aspects of it’s game especially in cooperative mode, then I expect to be able to pick female if I want to.
That becomes especially true when I can’t help feeling that they’ve missed a trick. Would Marat have let a man into his house whilst he lay defenseless in a bath? Somehow I doubt it. It’s not about complaining that Ubisoft chose to make their main character in the story based aspect of the game male but that in this particular time period it would have been perfect to let an assassin called Charlotte loose on the people of Paris backed up by historical fact. Regardless of what the Ubisoft supporters say the French Revolution did involve debate about the role of women, did involve women who wanted to bear arms, who wanted the right to vote (which incidentally they didn’t get in France until 1944) and who, like Charlotte Cordray participated in the violence.