What Women Want [Their Characters to be Like]

I was reading an essay about sexism in art for D&D, implicitly for the new edition, and it got me to thinking about how women portray female characters in RPGs. 

But, as usual for such discussions, it was a bunch of guys having the discussion. I shall now compound the problem. But, in my defense, I’m not going to claim to speak for women (or even claim that they are a monolithic entity that can be spoken for), or to read minds, but will instead simply report what I have observed and experienced.

I am in the fortunate position of playing with a group that is 3 women and 3 men, and most of my RPG groups since high school have had at least a couple women, if not equal numbers or even female-dominated (I was the token guy in one all-girls group in high school, and only there because this was the GM’s first time GMing and she wanted the only GM she’d ever gamed with there for moral support; once she was comfortable, I got “thrown out”).


The single most bloodthirsty hack-n-slash gamer I’ve ever played with was a woman. (She’s still a woman–but I haven’t gamed with her in 15 years, so I don’t know if she still plays the same.) I’m probably the least-combat-oriented gamer you’ll meet, and I’m male. And while the two least-crunch-tolerant gamers I’ve met are both women, only one of them actually has problems with it. The other is perfectly capable of handling, say, Spycraft 2.0, she just doesn’t like it. 

But I was thinking specifically about issues of gender, and how a person’s own character portrayals might say something about how they want to see people portrayed in that regard.

One thing I’ve noticed, which might be a surprise to the males reading this, but probably isn’t any sort of surprise to the females, is that while some individuals conform to gender expectations in their character portrayals, some don’t–and there’s no particular correlation between that tendency and the gender of the player. I’ve seen men who play realistic male characters and stereotyped female, and women who play nuanced female characters and stereotypical male. But I’ve also seen both men and women who play all characters equally 2-dimensionally, or all equally sophisticated. The gamers I know best cover the spectrum: some of their characters are complicated and realistic, others are 2-dimensional and cliched, and gender (of player or character) isn’t obviously correlated with this. 

But I’m going to talk specifically about how characters related to sexuality, attractiveness, and body image, the focus of the characters within the game, and gender roles. This was triggered by the regular–and completely accurate–comment that a lot of fantasy and RPG art tends to depict men in [pro-]active poses and situations, while the women tend to be depicted in reactive or passive poses, and more often are overtly posing for the viewer’s POV, rather than focusing on whatever is in their surroundings that it would actually make sense for them to focus on. 

I’m going to start with our Spycraft game, which ran for a year, i think, ending last summer. In that game, all the players played their own gender (not at all normative for our group). So all three of the women were playing girls–the game was set in a “spy high school” (sort of Hogwarts meets Spy Kids). Let’s meet them:

First we have Yutu, a child of the Fark with a Stockholm-syndrome-crafted worldview. She had a distinctly amoral worldview, which Vacile preyed upon, while the other tried to teach her morality. She started out sexually naive–actually, more prepubescent in her worldview, despite being 16. She barely had functional relationships of any sort, even with her teammates, and the one “boyfriend” relationship she had was much more like a grade school crush–no real sexual, or even romantic, component. In fact, it mostly felt like she just wanted a dance and sparring partner, and the former carried cultural assumptions of the required gender. 

As for her relationship to her body: I just had to ask the player whether or not Yutu is attractive, because I don’t think it ever came up in the game–it certainly was not a defining (or even defined) part of the character. But she was clearly completely comfortable with her body–she was the female character who on a few occasions wore the most revealing outfits. Her solution to sneaking off for a mini-mission in the middle of a school dance was to wear black underwear, bra, and shoes, a white dress, and black body paint–so that she could simply slip the dress off when it was time to go, and not be carrying or wearing suspicious clothes during the dance. On another occasion, she nonchalantly flashed a bouncer to get two of the girls into a club. She was the only female character both aware of societal gender roles and perfectly willing and able to take advantage of them, and use her body in this fashion, even while not seeing it as a sexual act at all–it was just taking advantage of the dumb guys.

However, none of that was particularly significant to the character as a whole. She was much more about her moral failings, barely-repressed hostility, lack of trust in anyone, and love of violence and explosives. IOW, gender really only mattered to her character insofar as which bathroom she used and who her tango partner was. 

Next up is Judith, a martial artist. Her appearance was a significant part of the character conception, but not her attractiveness: she was in excellent shape, well-muscled, and obviously athletic. A running gag in the game was Vacile referring to her as “mannish”, but the player made it clear that that was an unfair label, true only insofar as Vacile’s conception of “woman” was ridiculously stereotyped, informed by models and backup dancers, rather than reality. And, in fact, once she bothered to try to be attractive, and to get some fashion tips so that she no longer looked clownishly ridiculous, she turned out to be moderately attractive. It was clear to me that that was the player’s intention all along–that she be a “diamond in the rough”, so to speak. 

Judith was also the one with the most body issues, initially unable to conceive of herself as attractive, and very uncomfortable wearing clothes that were in any way revealing or sexualized. Vacile, like an abusive boyfriend, preyed upon these issues at times, alternately chiding, cajoling, and praising, in order to get her to sexualize her clothing for missions when playing an appropriate role (or, at least, that was how he justified it to himself).

Judith was a very physical character, so I think it’s fair to say that appearance was a central aspect of the character–but in the same way it is for Conan or Rambo. They might or might not be attractive, but it doesn’t really matter, either way. In terms of game mechanics, she was initially built as a combat monster, and later picked up minimal social skills when we all realized their lack was a real handicap on missions.

Finally, we have Kia. She was the only one who was explicitly cute from the get-go–though I honestly don’t know whether that was an invented or discovered characteristic on the part of the player. She had what I would consider pretty typical teenage-girl body issues, alternately enjoying flaunting her body and being shy about it.  She liked to dress artfully and dye her hair rainbow colors to match her outfits. But this was a very minor part of the whole character, and really only came up as a lighthearted element (school dances, etc) or when her very short stature or strange hair color was an issue for a mission.

But don’t get the idea that this was a significant part of her character. She was a hacker, a paranoid conspiracy theorist, and had major family issues–that’s what her character was built on. It just happened that the player also had a clear idea of her appearance. 

Contrast this with the males. Vacile was a teen pop star, highly charismatic, attractive–and severely narcissistic, bordering on solipsistic (it wasn’t so much that he thought he was most important as that he tended to forget about others–he was actually. His appearance, and caring about that appearance, and using it, were core aspects of his character. He seduced and fast-talked with about equal frequency, and regularly manipulated (well, attempted to manipulate) his teammates–it even worked at times (i.e., when the other players thought it would be entertaining, or decided to leave it to the dice and the dice liked me). He liked to shop, and regularly had completely inappropriate priorities (like balking at an undercover role because he didn’t like the outfit).

In other words, he’s a handsome (pretty?), charismatic, self-centered ass.

Finally, there was Cole, probably the only well-adjusted one of the bunch. An easy-going extreme sports–ahem, sorry–XTREEEM! sports enthusiast. On the surface, unflappable, always calm, not too bright, and friendly but not suave or romantic. Think Keanu Reeves’ character in Point Break, a bit. But, underneath, he actually had emotional depth, was clever, and was a surprisingly-caring person. 

In other words, the most 3-dimensional, realistic character of the bunch, on an emotional/personality level.

I’m not claiming this is typical, or even representative. Rather, I’m claiming that there’s no such thing as “typical”–for male or female players. Nor are these characters necessarily typical for these players. For example, the same woman that played Yutu in our Spycraft game played a positively girly adult woman in our Full Light, Full Steam game.

But what I do want you to take away from this is that this was 3 female gamers in a comfortable well-established group, so they [I hope] felt free to play whatever characters they wanted to. And this was very much an escapist, glamorous setting and genre–one where beautiful people are the norm, even the expectation. And yet the argument that “hey, women want their characters to be sexy, too–this is escapism, after all” didn’t play out. None of the women made characters who were explicitly sexy or beautiful, only one made “attractive” even a clearly-defined part of her character, and one didn’t even really consider attractiveness one way or the other initially.

And I don’t have any reason to believe they’re outliers. Now, to anyone making the “part of the escapism for women is to play attractive characters” argument–how many men play explicitly attractive characters as a rule? Because I’m betting there’s either no particular trend here or, if there is, it’s that men, the ones more often making the argument that sexiness is a part of escapist fantasy, more often make attractiveness a core part of their character creation, at least to the degree that the rules allow it. Maybe this is not merely misunderstanding of women by men, but projection on the part of men?

Even if they *are* outliers, that still shows that such women (and presumably girls) are out there. Is it really that important to the existing male gamers–or to attracting new male gamers–to be worth driving away female gamers? Or is it possible that you could give up some of the male-gaze sexy female art in favor of art that portrayed strong female characters doing things, and not all of which are attractive? I guess what I’ve never understood about this argument is why it’s even occurring. It always feels to me like men fighting back out of reflex, because they were “attacked”, not because they actually particularly support the status quo. How many men actually believe that they “need” pin-up style art in an RPG in order to enjoy (or buy) that RPG? And if you don’t need it, is it really such a huge loss to give it up, in order to broaden the player base?

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