After several dozen friends/family members/random strangers take a moment out of their day to collectively scream in my direction, “YOU HAVE TO PLAY SKYRIM,” I finally do.
And five minutes in, I am completely confused.
I understandd the cart with the prisoners, the guards strolling alongside, even the fact that I can’t move my character because this is Game Fate, a time when you have no choice and no motor control. Because Things must Happen for Plot.
And then I hear some woman’s voice giving orders, and no matter how much I turn, pivot, or crane my digital neck, I can’t find the speaker. No one’s around – just guards. I see no dresses. I see no Barbie Barbarian. My Sissy and I assume this is a game glitch. Or poor editing. We don’t understand.
Then I pop down from the cart and come face to face with the captain of the guard. I design my character, punch in a name, and compliment myself on my excellent taste in war paint.
And then it hits me. The voice – the disembodied Voice of Woman – is coming from the captain of the guard. This close, I can just barely see the altered outline of her breastplate, which allows for natural shape differences. Apart from that, though… she is dressed exactly like the men. There is no explanation. No trumpets sound. No finger descends from the sky to point out the developers’ overt effort at politically correct characterization.
She’s just there. Doing her job. And she isn’t even an important character, because a dragon turns her into Christmas roast two minutes later.
As my Sissy and I venture deeper into the game, we discover a lot of women like this. Only one character ever says anything about finding it difficult to be a woman. The others just… do their thing. Some wear dresses and serve at bars. Some are guards, dressed in the androgynous uniform of their state/cause/rebellion. Many wear armor, my character included, that actually looks like combat gear instead of a stripper’s costume.
A couple weeks later, my dad walks by as I’m negotiating with a female shopkeeper who deals in weapons and armor. My companion at the time is a dark elf I’ve nicknamed Gloomy due to her dour assessment of caves, opponents, quests, and life in general. Gloomy is a woman. My character is a woman. Dad, laughing but bemused, asks, “Is this a chick flick?” Like there’s a setting to change all characters to women, or I’m in a town without men.
I am, in fact, in Riften. There are men. They just aren’t on-screen at that particular moment. If Dad walked through a few minutes later, he’d see me hashing out business with a male representative of the Thieves’ Guild.
But because he sees only women, Dad is surprised.
Just like we were at the beginning of the game.
We’re all so surprised.
And I realize… this is weird.
Why are we so surprised?
When I tell people I’m a feminist, they assume I hate men. Actually, misandrists hate men. Different word entirely. Different world view altogether. Feminists aren’t interested in routing men from the picture. They are interested in adding women.
As a writer, this experience served as a wake-up call. Around that time, “We Have Always Fought” by Kameron Hurley appeared on my Facebook feed, and I realized something really important.
Feminists get a lot of flack because the articles and causes people most like to share are ones that emphasize the negative. This is true of any cause. There is CERTAINLY a time and place for such articles. We, as a society, need people to call us on our crap. However, we need to start building the world (and fiction) we’ve been calling for. Or, I guess, continue to build it, because there are games like Skyrim. There are books and movies with women who are more than “strong female characters.” Usually when people talk about a “strong female character” they mean her bikini is made of metal, and therefore has a high tensile strength. “Strong female characters” often appear as individuals, idealized tokens of their sex, defined in the plot by their male relations, lovers, or captors. To be fair, they don’t always wear bikinis. But they always look pretty. They are always alluring. They only ever outshine their male counterparts for comedic effect. Or they fight well, but they are always “vulnerable” to the men in their lives, experiencing alarmingly dominating sorts of romance. And when the boy they are most vulnerable to inevitably rescues them (usually from another man), they almost inevitably kiss. Gender is always the most important aspect of a “strong female character.”
So I’m writing this to challenge myself and my readers (yes, you, you clever thing) to make good characters.
Think about what a person in a given situation would do. Don’t limit the potential of your story by limiting the role of women. Sometimes male and female characters may fall in love. That’s fine. But sometimes they won’t. That’s also fine. Sometimes women will be leaders. Sometimes they will be subordinates. Some will wear dresses, and some will wear armor.
With enough successful examples like Skyrim, we can change the course of the entertainment industry.
This won’t happen in one week, or even one year, but maybe – if we take our mission seriously – this could happen in a decade or two.
You don’t have to identify as a feminist to buy into this.
Let’s work on crafting better characters so we aren’t surprised by the captain of the guard.