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Video games might be the newest art form in our media landscape (barely thirty years old) but they tend to bring forth the oldest stereotypes of gender roles. I noticed a pattern that puts women in one of two categories: victims or villains. For an exhaustive exploration of the first category you should watch the following video series, Tropes vs. Video Games: Damsel in Distress Part 1,Part 2 and Part 3. This particular trope puts women as the perennial victim, always under assault by the powers that be, helpless in the face of danger and utterly dependent on a male hero to save her. While examples of role reversals do exists, as the video series shows, they are few and far between. The trope links a series of positive values like physical strength, perseverance, gallantry and martial skill with being male, while negative values such as physical weakness, gullibility, lack of will/agency are linked with being female.
Hence being male is good, being female is bad.
There is another role in which women in video games fall into, that of villain. But these are, again, not mere counterparts of the male hero, they are rarely even the main villain, just a henchman of sorts and often just a different type of trash mob. These villains don’t use brute strength, instead they rely on poison, their sexuality and trickery to challenge the hero and often are just victims of the main villain themselves, thus they are robbed of agency to boot.
That means they are not even baddies by choice!
But take a look at the villain’s methods. It is not raw power or perseverance that makes these villains a credible threat, but indirect, secretive methods that exploit the heroes weaknesses while keeping the villain out of harms reach. Indirect attacks that subvert and corrupt the good values represented by the hero. Woman is not only weak, as she can not go toe to toe with the hero, but is also a corrupter which poisons everything she touches. Put the victim and the villain together and you have two reinforcing stereotypes of the feminine as weakness. The first can be “resolved” by a timely application of manliness, the second must be destroyed before it corrupts said manliness.
Is there anyway to fix this? The easiest solution would be to do a gender inversion, but gender bending characters just screams two-dimensional to me. If you can simply swap the skin of the character or switch the sprite, was there any character there to begin with? No, the actual solution is a bit more complex. We need to decouple positive and negative values from their assigned gender roles. The values should reflect the individual and not their gender. Nor should the be used to masculinize women and feminize men as it is often the case when content creators show characters that fall outside heteronormative criteria of gender roles.
One thing is for sure, while it is true that such stereotypes exists, it is high time for the medium to expand their horizons beyond these limited and often absurd stereotypes.