“Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” is a video webseries hosted by Anita Sarkeesian which is featured on her website Feminist Frequency. The series was funded via a Kickstarter and aims to “explore five common and recurring stereotypes of female characters in video games.” Due to the success of the Kickstarter program there are to be 12 trope-exploring videos including Women as Reward, The Sexy Sidekick, Mrs. Male Character, and more.
“The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.”
I began summarizing and formulating my own opinion in blog post form here awhile back and I plan on continuing my posts with each video Anita Sarkeesian releases in this series. I am doing this in order to not only share my opinion on the subject at hand but also to inform my audience of these subjects and Anita Sarkeesian’s work in general. Feminism and video games are both very prominent in my everyday life and while I don’t agree with every single point Sarkeesian makes I do applaud her for taking the time to focus on these issues and point them out to the general public in such an intelligent, properly formulated way. I backed her Kickstarter for this project and also donate a set amount of my earnings to Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency web series each month. Since these videos are something which I take great interest in, I will continue to write about them with the hopes that they reach out to you, the reader.
In this post I will be analyzing the most recent video in Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series which is titled “Ms. Male Character”. In this video she examines the Ms. Male character trope, briefly discussing the Smurfette Principle as well. Sarkeesian has defined the Ms. Male Character trope as “The female version of an already established or default male character. Ms. Male Characters are defined primarily by their relationship to their male counterparts via visual properties, narrative connection or occasionally through promotional materials.” Below you will find embedded the original video itself as well as a brief summary written in my own words with a few quotes here and there (for those who would rather read than watch). After that is my take on the video as a whole which is of course pure opinion.
[For a full transcript of the video please click this link which will bring you to the Ms. Male Character post on feministfrequency.com]
In this video Anita Sarkeesian shifts the focus away from plot devices and towards a particular pattern in character design, one which she has dubbed the “Ms. Male Character” trope. She begins with Pac-Man, a game which the creator of Pac-Man, Toru Iwatani, stated was designed to appeal to women. A quote from Iwatani reads, “When you think about things women like, you think about fashion, or fortune-telling, or food or dating boyfriends. So I decided to theme the game around “eating” — after eating dinner, women like to have dessert.” Sarkeesian states that it is lucky the regressive notions weren’t implemented into the final product. This leads in to the next point.
Sarkeesian goes into a brief history about how Ms. Pac-Man became a character and how the release of Ms. Pac-Man became the most successful American-made coin-operated arcade cabinet ever produced. This is all related back to the trope at hand considering that Ms. Pac-Man is the first Ms. Male Character in video game history. Sarkeesian defines the Ms. Male Character trope as:
A female version of an already established or default male character. Ms. Male Characters are defined primarily by their relationship to their male counterparts via their visual properties, their narrative connection or occasionally through promotional materials.
Sarkeesian notes that this trope is not native to video games and is instead part of a long tradition in visual media. A couple of examples shown are Minnie Mouse and Super Girl, both female versions of the male hero they are connected to through their respective narratives. She states that “[w]hen the female spin-off is an exact duplicate, she is sometime referred to as a Distaff Counterpart” and also confirms that while this trope did not originate in relation to video games, game developers still use it rather frequently especially when trying to appeal to “young people” and “general audiences”.
Anita asks “How do we know what gender a particular character is?” How can we tell that Ms. Pac-Man is a female and that Pac-Man is a male, what characteristics differentiate the two characters?
Basically, the creators added a series of stereotypical design elements to Ms. Pac-Man in order to make her female and differentiate her from her male counterpart Pac-Man. These designs include a bow, lipstick, long eyelashes and a beauty mark. The ads and promotional materiel she was featured in added long legs, high heels, jewelry, a feather boa, and make-up to her character design which goes along with the bow and beauty mark. These additional features are called ” feminizing gendered signifiers” and are used to signify “female”. Sarkeesian states that the bow is most commonly used to make a character more female or feminine in contrast to a male counterpart.
Childlike hair decorations are by far the most frequented accessory used for this purpose. It’s standard practice for creators to, just, put a big bow on top of an anthropomorphized animal or personified object in order to communicate that the character is not male.
She names a few examples of other games that have simply put a bow on female characters who otherwise look just like the male main characters. These examples include the Bubble Bobble series, the Adventures of Lolo series, the Super Monkey Ball series, Disney’s Where’s my Water mobile game series, Adult Swim’s Giant Boulder of Death, and Rogue Legacy. Bows, which are just “piece of colored fabric”, are used to assign femininity to people or objects in our society, “It’s a symbol that conveys the concept of female and invokes the idea of girlhood” according to Sarkeesian.
Here Sarkeesian brings up how color is also used to signify gender, mainly the color pink and it’s variations. She names a few characters (not including the ones involved in the games/series’ mentioned above with the bows, since they are all pink or wearing mostly pink/purple) that sport pink as their main color pallet such as Ms. Splosion Man, Nana of the Ice Climbers, Amy Rose of the Sonic games and CommandgirlVideo of Bit Trip Runner/Runner 2. There are also other signifiers used to differentiate females from males such as “pigtails, high-heeled shoes, painted nails, pronounced makeup (especially blush and eyeshadow), midriff baring outfits, exaggerated breasts with exposed cleavage, and a heart motif in their design or powers.”
Pretty Bomber, an example used by Sarkeesian and pictured above, is a part of the Bomberman series and is, as you can see, covered in pink with a huge heart on her head to signify that she is a female. She also throws heart-shaped bombs in the game series.
Gendered signifiers are not mandatory for the Ms Male Character trope to be in effect but these type of stereotypical attributes do serve to “mark” female characters as decidedly different by virtue of their feminine presentation.
Sarkeesian makes it clear that there is nothing inherently wrong with bows, the color pink and make-up or high heels as design elements. She also states that it is perfectly fine for people of all genders to wear such things in the real world. The point she is making by identifying these gender signifiers in relation to the Ms. Male Character trope is that when these elements “and their associated visual stereotypes” are use specifically to distinguish a character’s gender, there are negative consequences.
One of these consequences, Sarkeesian states, is that relying on these stereotypical, feminizing signifiers “enforces a strict binary form or gender expression”. As Sarkeesian puts it, “The gender binary is an entirely artificial and socially constructed division of male and female into two distinctly separate and opposing classes of human being. The gender binary also erases the continuum of gender presentations and identities that fall outside of the rigid masculine/feminine false dichotomy.” She also states that with this binary in place, “women are “marked” while men get to remain largely “unmarked”.
An example of this comes from Koopalings, Bowser’s seven children from the Mario franchise. All of the Koopalings happen to be male except for one; Wendy O. Koopa. We can tell she is a female simply by looking at her since “her designers used practically every hyper-feminine frill and accessory available to separate her from her male siblings.” This includes a pink shell, a large pink bow, heavy make-up, high heels and jewelry. In contrast her brothers are virtually “unmarked” by gendered signifiers, meaning that there are no specific indicators in their character design that designates them as male. Sarkeesian states that this means the male siblings are “presented in a variety of creative ways” while all we can see when we look at Wendy is that she is obviously female and nothing else. “Sadly, Wendy’s identity is limited by the fact that she is covered in superficial gendered signifiers. As with many Ms Male Characters, her defining characteristic is her gender”, Sarkeesian says.
Wendy also suffers from a parallel condition I like to call “Personality Female Syndrome” wherein female characters are reduced to a one dimensional personality type consisting of nothing more than a collection of shallow stereotypes about women. She is vain, spoiled, bratty and quick to anger.
While female characters are consistently “marked” by gendered, feminizing stereotypes we see male characters that are generally “unmarked”, giving them a much wider variety of character design than females. Sarkeesian points out that pink and purple, contrary to the fact that they are typically used as feminine colors and accompanied with genered signifiers, are not exclusive to women. She notes characters such as Kirby, Bomberman, and Roy Koopa; who all sport pink and/or purple. She also points out, however, “if a bow, lipstick, eyeshadow or heels are placed on an otherwise male-identified character the intention, or at least the result, is typically a homophobic or transphobic joke.” An example of this, which is used in video-clip form, comes from Super Punch Out! and features the character Heike Kagero.
She notes that there are a few design accessories for men that remain mostly optional such as baseball caps and neckties, though they don’t hold the same significance. Sarkeesian states, “They are not ubiquitous or strictly enforced, and are never really used to “mark” men as “not female” in larger fictional universes dominated by women.”
Here Sarkeesian points out Lily, a character in the Scribblenauts series who is the twin sister of Maxwell (the main character of the series) and the only female sibling out of 42 total siblings. She is basically the exact same person as Maxwell except for a few feminized gender signifiers such as pink hair and a skirt. Sarkeesian states that Lily is not only a Ms. Male Character, but also the victim of another related trope referred to as the Smurfette Principle.
The Smurfette Principle is the tendency for a piece of media to include only one woman in an ensemble of male characters. The trope is a pervasive problem in video games, manifesting as the “token chick” in any given grouping of heroes, villains or non-playable characters.
A key example of this trope can be found in the Mega Man series. There are 78 bosses throughout the 10 game series yet only one of them is a female, Splash Woman. Another example that Sarkeesian brings to attention can be found in the Wii U game titled The Wonderful 101 which features six differently colored playable males and one female who, as you probably guessed by now, is of course decked out in pink. The female playable character in The Wonderful 101 is named Wonder-Pink! and falls victim to the “Personality Female Syndrome” just as Wendy Koopa did; She is “shallow, vain, materialistic and flies into a rage at the drop of a hat.”
Sarkeesian notes that the Smurfette Principle can be found in almost ever genre out there from puzzle games to shooters. Here she quotes an article in the NYTimes written by Katha Pollitt, the feminist author who coined the term “Smurfette Prinicple”, which reads;
The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.
We take a step back to Ms. Pac-Man at this point in the video. Sarkeesian states that despite the character’s tagline, “more than Pac-Man with a bow”, she pretty much is just Pac-Man with a bow, design-wise. This is due to her “simple narrative” which “reinforces the fact that she really only exists in relationship to Pac-Man.” She exists as Pac-Man’s love interest and she is the mother of his child, not as a unique individual.
Another example of this comes from Dixie Kong, the “feminine variant and love interest of Diddy Kong” in the Donkey Kong series. Sarkeesian goes on to say that these Ms. Male Characters simply exist in relation to their male companions as they are basically just feminized versions of the male character design. Dixie Kong is basically the same design as Diddy Kong, except for long hair, pink shirt, pink hat, earrings, and eyelashes which define her as female yet make her a simple extension of Diddy Kong.
Ms. Male Characters typically aren’t given their own distinctive identities and are prevented from being fully realized characters who exist on their own terms. This has the, perhaps unintended, effect of devaluing these characters and often relegating them to a subordinate or secondary status inside their respective media franchises, even when they are, on rare occasions, given a starring role in a spin-off or sequel.
Sarkeesian brings up an “old and notable example” of this trope by describing the creationism story of Adam and Eve, featured in the Holy Bible. Adam was created in God’s image while Eve was created by pulling a rip off of Adam’s side and making a female out of it. Eve was made from Adam to be his wife and companion. Sarkeesian relates this to the Ms. Male Character trope by stating that this story of Adam and Eve “reinforces a subordinate view of women – man is cast as the original concept and source code for woman who is derived from his body. Essentially Eve is the sequel to Adam, just as Ms. Pac-Man was built from the body of Pac-Man who came before her.”
Due to our society being “male identified”, men become synonymous with human and are therefore the default in the media and other venues. We see this in video games as male identity turns into men being the standard, default character unless there is some special reason or justification for there to be a female main character. An example used by Sarkeesian comes from the Angry Birds mobile game series which originally featured five separate, un-gendered birds as protagonists and un-gendered pigs as antagonists. In February 2011 Rovio, the game’s developer, came out with female versions of the main bird characters, who were previously un-gendered.
They gave these female, Ms. Male Character birds long eyelashes, make-up and of course – a bow. At this point they had only introduced the female red and white birds and a female pig; all of which were love interests to their male counterparts. The introduction of the “marked” female birds reinforced that all the previous or original birds are male by default unless otherwise noted. In 2012 a pink bird was revealed and Sarkeesian states that this addition “further entrenched male as the default setting for the Angry Birds universe.”
Another example is Toadette from the Mario series who is not only a Ms. Male Character but also a victim of the Smurfette Principle as she is the only female among the Mushroom people. Her introduction “emphasize[d] the fact that all the other Toads in the entire species are male.”
Both the Smurfette Principle and the Ms. Male Character trope create scenarios that reinforce a false dichotomy wherein male is associated with the norm while female is associated with a deviation from the norm.
Here we shift from the visual elements and narrative connections associated with the Ms. Male Character and Smurfette Principle tropes and into the marketing/promotional materials used to emphasize these tropes. Sarkeesian states that a great example of this trend can be found via Bioware’s Mass Effect series. In the game players can choose to play as either a male or female Commander Shepard, both of which feature virtually indistinguishable narratives aside from the difference in romantic interest options (and even some of those are the same). Taking a step back from the game itself and focusing instead on the marketing used to promote the games is where we will find the tropes.
In mainstream advertising of the series the female version of Commander Shepard is practically nonexistent as the marketing campaign continuously focuses predominantly on the male version of the character. His face in on the front cover of all three games in the series (including the special editions which only feature the female version on the back of the case) and he is the one featured in commercials, trailers, street posters, ads, etc.; Not the female version of the same character.
That is how Bioware is selling the Mass Effect experience. Nearly everything about the advertising campaign explicitly tells players that Commander Shepard is a man and by extension associates the official storyline with the male version of the hero. This marketing strategy contributes to the fact that only 18-20% of players choose the female option (despite the fact that Jennifer Hale’s voice acting is widely praised as being far superior).
Sarkeesian points out that the female version of Commander Shepard still has a large fan following despite the marketing for the games, fans who refer to her as FemShep. This is meant to be an “affectionate nickname” for the female version of Commander Shepard but Sarkeesian states that it does further highlight her designation as the Ms. Male Character considering the male version is simply referred to as Commander Shepard (no gender implications). She also brings up the fact that Bioware did try to involve the female version of the protagonist in their marketing for Mass Effect 3 with an exclusive web trailer and a reversible slip cover for the game, both featuring the female Commander Shepard. Sarkeesian notes that “these gestures feel like an afterthought or niche specialty marketing and hardly what I would call a substantial or equitable inclusion.”
While the Mass Effect advertising has no real affect on the quality of the game or the overall player experience it is an example of how the Ms. Male Character trope can be further perpetuated by marketing for these games.
Sarkeesian begins to wrap up the video by stating that it’s “true that in many cases the games starring the female variant are better gaming experiences overall” and “taken on their own, each individual example we’ve covered in this episode might seem relatively benign or trivial.” She goes on to say that “the reason this series focuses on tropes is because they help us recognize larger, recurring patterns.” The Ms. Male Character and the Smurfette Principle have been “normalized” in video games and mass media to such an extent “that the two tropes usually pass under the radar and are often reproduced unconsciously – which is part of what makes the myths they perpetuate about women so powerful and insidious in our culture.”
There is no reason to utilize either one of these tropes by defining women as copies of men or automatically resorting “to lazy, stereotypical or limiting gender signifiers when designing video game characters.” Sarkeesian brings to a light a few examples of female characters who are notable and memorable while not falling victim to the tropes at hand. One of these characters is Claire, a simple blue cube in the indie game Thomas Was Alone. We can only tell that she is a female by her name, her narrative, and the pronouns used to describe her. Sarkeesian notes that “Claire’s gender presentation doesn’t reduce her to her gender or separate her from the rest of the cast.”
Half of the playable characters in TowerFall are women and the game is also notable for it’s color-code inversion, The Last of the Order wears blue while the Assassin Prince is decked out in pink.
Other examples can be found in indie games such as Knytt Underground, Scary Girl, Ittle Dew, and the iOS game Lili. These games feature female characters who aren’t generalized and/or stereotyped; “The visual aesthetics of these female characters displays a range of gender expression and presentation using a variety of hairstyles, color choices and accessories.”
This further proves that is is entirely possible for developers to create more female characters that aren’t subjected to the Ms. Male Character or Smurfette Principle tropes. “Even with minimal narrative or limited graphics it is entirely possible to make games that feature dynamic women who exist on their own terms”.
In Conclusion… My Thoughts
To start, I’d like to say that I found this to be the best video in the “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series thus far. There is very little to debate, from my perspective, and I really learned a lot (as I usually do with these videos).
I feel that the Ms. Male Character trope hurts the female image the most by stereotyping us into one set category – “feminine”. There’s nothing wrong with being feminine but how many women do you see on a daily basis decked out in pink bows and tons of make-up? Is that even what being feminine is? I don’t think it’s so cut and dry. I consider myself to be feminine but I don’t wear bows, jewelry or make-up, and I only own one pink shirt which was bought specifically for a wedding and never worn again. We are all so different, every human being is unique and has a unique style and personality. The fact the Ms. Male Characters are designated to look one certain way is weird to me, since that’s not what I think of when I think “female”, yet it’s constantly used in video games and throughout the general media. This type of thought process in society is probably why I am constantly referred to as a male – I don’t fit this odd, stereotype of femininity so I am not female, in some people’s mind.
It seems so very lazy to continue to make females distinctive in this way as opposed to example of Claire in Thomas Was Alone. It’s also lazy to make these character not only decked out in false stereotypes, but to also make them nearly identical to their male counterpart expect for some pink and frills. As was the case with the Damsel in Distress trope and bad writing, this is just bad character design/direction. It’s obvious when you look at various games such Tomb Raider and Remember Me that women can be feminine without wearing pink or a bow or whatever else people think is feminine. Other games show us all different types of women from Ellie in the Last of Us to Joanna Dark from Perfect Dark, all of which are actual characters and none of them are designed to look like a walking stereotype.
I think Anita perfectly described my thoughts and the general negativity of the trope in this quote: “Ms. Male Characters typically aren’t given their own distinctive identities and are prevented from being fully realized characters who exist on their own terms. This has the, perhaps unintended, effect of devaluing these characters and often relegating them to a subordinate or secondary status inside their respective media franchises, even when they are, on rare occasions, given a starring role in a spin-off or sequel.”
These Ms. Male Characters aren’t even characters most of the time, just extensions of other (usually male) characters. That’s the issue. It’s not that they are love interests or that they are wearing pink or wearing make-up, it’s that they are inferior to their male counterparts.
I have been aware of the Smurfette Principle for a while now and I just despise how often it is used and that it is used at all, to be honest. What I find to be the most offensive aspect of this trope is that in a lot of instances I feel like saying “why even bother at this point?”. Like the example with the Scribblenauts series, why make only 1 in 42 characters a female? Maybe they didn’t want to seem sexist and felt they must include a girl at some point, but making only 1 in 42 characters a female is way more sexist that not having any at all, in my opinion. They become the token girl in these cases and are rarely (if even) given as much respect, character development, or narrative as the male characters. Why bother trying to be diverse with gender inclusion if you are just going to half-ass it? I’d rather see a game with no females than a game with one or two who are barely even characters.
The random addition of a single female is just a slap in the face for me. If they were there from the beginning yet fall under the Smurfette Principle, it’s still an issue but another one entirely. Basically just adding a female because “oh shit, we’ve made 10 games and there are no females” is again worse than just not having any females. I find that it is rarely ever justified, either. It’s like these developers feel obligated to add a girl in the game at some point regardless of how little actual effect she has on anything in the game other than to either look pretty or be a love interest. Just an accessory. A thing to show off and say “look, we include girls too!”.
I really found it exciting when Anita brought up Mass Effect’s marketing. She mentioned how male Shepard is on the cover of everything and takes center stage in most of the ads and promotional stuff and I was on board with this idea before this video was made. I remember thinking “what, no FemShep?” when the Mass Effect 3 ads were all over the TV and internet and being pretty annoyed since I play as female Commander Shepard exclusively. They really shouldn’t have implied that MaleShep was the default when both genders are equal in terms of gameplay and story and that is the point I relate with the most.
It was insightful when Anita made the point that calling the character FemShep just makes her seem like even more of a Ms. Male Character since MaleShep (as I call him, to be fair and to shorten it up) is typically just referred to as Commander Shepard – with no gender -, while the female version is specifically FemShep. While I don’t plan on not calling her that since at this point I genderize both versions, I still think that the fact that Anita pointed this out was really interesting and it made me consider that common nickname on a deeper level.
Overall I really enjoyed this video and was really captivated by it as a whole. While I enjoyed the previous Damsel in Distress videos almost as much, there were more arguable points in them – at least for me there were. I agreed with the overall message but some of the points made felt like a bit of a stretch. That was not the case with this video and I was really delighted to see that this was the case. I hope the next videos in the series will follow the same path; I’m really looking forward to seeing them and analyzing them.