Sheva Alomar is the side-kick in Resident Evil 5. She escorts protagonist Chris Redfield through Africa. Light-skinned and trained in the United States, she is a bridge between worlds for white American Chris as he shoots his way through infected pan-African villages and ruins. She is a playable character if you play RE5 in two player, or if you beat the game solo you can play the game through her perspective with Chris as your AI.
I played a two-player game with a friend, so I was able to play Sheva. I had to put up a little fight to get her because neither of us wanted to play the white guy. It was refreshing to be a playable character that was a woman of color. After keeping the incompetent, screaming Ashley alive in RE4, I was relieved Sheva was tough, calm, and competent.
As much as I like Sheva, and think it’s great that she is a playable woman of color, there are several problems I have with her character design I’d like to discuss. This post contains some spoilers.
I learned the term “light-washing” from a commenter at Hathor Legacy, softestbullet, who used the phrase to describe characters of color being depicted like Jay Lake’s Green and Justine Larbalestier’s Liar. The characters aren’t drawn entirely white, but any “ethnic” features are downplayed so they look more like the “default” white. I think light-washing is an apt term to describe Sheva because character designers seem to have gone out of their way to make her look less African than the rest of the black characters in the game. She has light skin, gray eyes, and high-lighted hair that stays perfectly straight even after slogging through crocodile infested pools. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Sheva looks more like the presumably light-skinned players than the other African characters that she kills.
Of course, it is important to positively represent mixed race characters, but I find it problematic that she is supposed to represent an entire continent. I also am not sure how being mixed race comes in to Sheva’s family history. According to the RE Wiki, her parents were killed when she was a child when Umbrella tested biological weapons on her presumably poor village. With Africa’s history of past and present European colonialism, I suppose mixed heritage is possible, but I somehow doubt Capcom put much thought in the matter since they could not even say where in Africa the game took place other than it’s a fictional village called Kijuju.
No remorse/stand by your man
Sheva is assigned to Chris to keep the Kijuju natives from going hostile on him because he’s an American because apparently they hate the white man even before they’re infected. She never questions this task, and expresses complete loyalty to Chris. She never shows any remorse when people presumably from her community are infected and killed by her and Chris. When she and Chris are out numbered and most of her team is dead, she tries to convince him to retreat, but when he says he is going to go off mission and look for his missing partner Jill, she stands by his side.
Sheva wears high-heeled boots and a tanktop with a low v-neck cut. This isn’t my idea of body armor. Has any character designer ever spent a day in heals? If he had, he might understand why how silly it is to inhibit your ability to fight and run for the sake of fashion. Chris, on the other hand, wears a covering t-shirt and baggy camo pants with knee pads. At least you can put Sheva in a bullet-proof vest, at least, which I did.
Sheva and Chris have even more divergent unlockable outfits.
Compare Sheva’s unlockable outfit and Chris’s. Chris gets to wear his old S.T.A.R.S. uniform. Very practical for killing zombies. Sheva, on the other hand, dresses in some kind of stereotyped, pan-tribal costume. African women (and that’s not a homogenous category) don’t go around wearing leopard print bikinis. This outfit is a throwback to some mythical past and suggests that Sheva is “primitive” because she’s African. Sheva is as contemporary a woman as Chris’s former partner Jill Valentine, and as educated and well-trained. It’s insulting to put strong women in fetish gear when they’re supposed to be saving the world and completely detracts from everything that makes her badass.
Because RE5 was made in Japan does not excuse its racism. Because the game was made by people of color does not mean it does not perpetuate white supremacy. The insensitive design Sheva’s “special” outfit reduces an entire continent to a Westernized fetish for privileged consumers whether they’re in Japan or North America.