Something’s Missing…

Katherine O’Kelly is a white, gender egalitarian and science fiction novelist. She specializes in writing non-human protagonists to provide social commentary from the perspective of the “Other.”  She’s particularly interested in creating media that validates male submission and female dominance.

I won’t be buying the third World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, because I already learned all I needed to know about where women stand from the second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King.  When I first bought Lich King, I couldn’t wait to explore the new continent, Northrend.  After God-knows-how-many hours of playing World of Warcraft, I was ready for some fresh faces and new humanoid races.  Right away, I thought the walrus-like Tuskarr looked cool and original.  Their character models had plenty of variations–different skin colors, a variety facial hair, bushy and not-so-bushy eyebrows, even different styles of tusks.  Yet the village felt somehow incomplete.  What was missing here?

Female and male Taunka models. The female Taunka (left foreground) is identical to a female Tauren, whose physical features resemble that of a cow. The male Taunka has physical features that resemble a bison.

Female and male Taunka models. The female Taunka (left foreground) is identical to a female Tauren, whose physical features resemble that of a cow. The male Taunka has physical features that resemble a bison.

The answer became more obvious in Camp Winterhoof, another Northrend city.  Here was another new race: the Taunka, long lost cousins of the Tauren.  Just like the Tauren resemble domestic cattle, the Taunka look like American bison.  I was impressed by the first Taunka I saw: the male had a blunt muzzle, shaggy mane, and short curved horns that made him instantly recognizable as a bison.  Then I saw one of the female models. It was perfectly identical to the Tauren females—cow-like, not bison-like.  “Ahh, this is probably just a Tauren ambassador from the Horde,” I reasoned. “This can’t be a female Taunka.  Surely Blizzard wouldn’t be so lazy as to re-use females from a completely different race while rendering a completely new face for the males.”  But Blizzard had.  The difference between male and female Taunka models never ceased to be jarring.  Every time I saw an exact duplicate of the Tauren female faces I’ve seen since I first started playing, it reinforced the message from the game creators: “Women don’t matter.  We couldn’t be bothered.”  I’m sure making new models is an expensive and time-consuming  process, but male and female bison in nature look identical.  Why couldn’t they just re-use the bison-faced models for both sexes?  Were they afraid the female Taunka faces wouldn’t be “sexy” enough?

This disgust brought me back to the Tuskarr village and what was missing: women of any kind.  I tried to give you the benefit of the doubt, Blizzard.  I really did.  I even considered the possibility that Tuskarr reproduce asexually like  Orks in Warhammer 40,000, who cross bred with fungus. Such were the depths of excuses I’d plumb to make sense of this world. But a quick glance at WowWiki slapped down this feeble grasp at asexual explanation:

[Tuskarr] marriage occurs as soon as a man can support a wife, and for females as soon as they reach puberty.  Tuskarr females farm the few crops that grow in the tundra while also collecting a variety of berries and roots.

I don’t insist that all women be powerful positive role models.  I can respect a different culture that has different roles for women.  But this still left me with the question: Where are all these alleged crop-growers and berry-pickers?  If you’re going to make all the Taunka males carry the spears and lead the village, I’ll let that slide on account of cultural dissonance.  But can Tuskarr women at least exist? Can they be seen carrying their infants in cloth baby slings or swapping gossip with their sisters beside the fish-smoking racks?

This train of thought got me wondering about all the other races in WoW that are male-only like Satyrs and Ogres.  Why no females?  Because no one would want to sleep with a chick that looks like that, of course!  Am I right, guys?  *elbow nudge* I’m not sure either way if any Gnoll, Murloc, or Furbolg NPCs in the game are female or if they, like the Tuskarr and Ogres, are an all-sausage race.

There are a few humanoid races in which males and females are represented with unisex models: Yeti, Arakkoa, and Wildkin.  This is the best possible scenario, in my opinion.  In nature, most animal species are nearly indistinguishable between the sexes.  Even if there were subtle sex differences between Wildkin, I’m sure a human unfamiliar with their people wouldn’t be keen enough to catch it.  If it’s too expensive to render a separate female model for monster races, I have no problem with using a unisex model for both.  Naga and Centaurs are two humanoid monster races that have separate male and female models.

What about those goblins, once strictly NPCs and now a playable race in Cataclysm?   At the time I was first playing Lich King and pondering the absence of female monsters, I nearly put goblins in the all-men camp.  It took me a while to remember I’d seen a female goblin flight master somewhere.  Here was an example of a race in which there were both male and female models, but the females are so few in number they could be overlooked entirely.  I ran around Gadgetzan, a goblin city, in late 2009 and counted up all the male and female goblins I could find to get some hard numbers instead of relying on my memory of female scarcity.  The number of goblin males?  55.  Females?  3.  To me, that feels like more of a pat on the head than inclusion.

Sometimes such tokenism feels more insulting than being overlooked entirely.  Consider this screenshot from the first major Alliance city a player encounters in Lich King.  Looks like Blizzard took the old maxim “Women are all the same,” and made it a literal reality.

A female Draenei PC stands among NPCs labeled ‘civilian recruits’ standing in line. The male NPCs are varied in race and age. All are fully clothed, middle-aged or older, and one is armed. The women models are perfectly identical: young, white, human, blonde, busty, scantily clad, and empty-handed.

A female Draenei PC stands among NPCs labeled ‘civilian recruits’ standing in line. The male NPCs are varied in race and age. All are fully clothed, middle-aged or older, and one is armed. The women models are perfectly identical: young, white, human, blonde, busty, scantily clad, and empty-handed.

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28 Responses to Something’s Missing…

  1. Awitelin says:

    This doesn’t refute your post, particularly, since you’re absolutely right – the “Taunka” females in particular irk me terribly, and it’s disappointing how often Blizzard neglects female models and roles.

    Giving credit where (a little) credit is due, though, Blizzard did do a better job with representing women some bold female characters in this expansion, I felt. There is a brave, cheeky dwarven female and a tough, aggressive orc female leader, both serving in visible and story-important roles. Neither is classically attractive or notable for any reason other than their own actions.

    I found them both to be very refreshing and they didn’t feel “tokenized” to me, so cheers to that.

  2. Korva says:

    This has always bothered — and annoyed! — me as well. It’s not just Blizzard, either, look at the aliens in Bioware’s Mass Effect franchise for another example of how females only exist as ultra-sexualized fan service … if they exist at all. The default is, “of course”, male. If a species doesn’t look f*ckable there will be no females, period, except in rare cases when they can look “grotesque” instead. Example: Therazane, who *I* think kicks butt, but want to bet the vaunted “target audience” of straight young men hates her because she looks like an angry Venus of Willendorf instead of the blow-up sex doll they are otherwise “entitled to” when they see a female character?

    I don’t buy the excuse that it is too expensive to have models for both genders. It’s bullcrap, as usual. So use unisex models. Or show us only the women of the species instead of the men (but NOT as blow-up sex dolls for a change). Or have only one new species that is fleshed out more and comes with both gender models, instead of two barely-detailed species.

    And yes, Awitelin, I agree that Blizzard has given us a few good, fun female characters in Cataclysm whereas Wrath was a pure sausage-fest from start to finish. I’m especially fond of Stormcaller Mylra (the dwarf). But these few exceptions — none of whom are first-degree “hero/protagonist” NPCs — only make the predominant sexism all the more painful. The worst examples of that is still and always has been how Tyrande and all the night elf women went from fierce, savage nature warriors/huntress/priestesses to vapid, passive, bouncy babyteen groupies. With the Horde warmongering in Ashenvale, which has gone on since vanilla and b become ten times worse in Cataclysm, there simply is no excuse for Blizzard not to let Tyrande go out there and whip orc arse all the way back to Draenor.

    Oh, silly me. Tyrande is a *woman*. Her only purpose is to look pretty and fawn over Malfurion. And the orcs are male-dominated and Blizzard’s pet “race” along with the humans, so of course they are entitled to punching bags they can kick around without any consequences. Gank Tyrande in the morning, drink beer with Malfurion and Cenarius in the evening. Yay!

    Why do I still play this game, again? *rolls eyes* It’s really just the friends and guildies who keep me there, most days.

    • awitelin says:

      @Korva – I am with you. I hate hate HATE the bouncy female night elves.

    • Maverynthia says:

      his has always bothered — and annoyed! — me as well. It’s not just Blizzard, either, look at the aliens in Bioware’s Mass Effect franchise for another example of how females only exist as ultra-sexualized fan service … if they exist at all. The default is, “of course”, male. If a species doesn’t look f*ckable there will be no females, period, except in rare cases when they can look “grotesque” instead.

      Females will always be the other as long as both males and females… err wait.. men and females.. no that’s wrong….

      As long as men and women keep calling women, females and using the term females as a noun when they mean women, which continues to dehumanize them, then women will always bee seen as “not worth it”.

      • Well it’s not just done to women: from the article we have “The number of goblin males? 55. Females? 3.”

        Though I would agree that if it’s making people uncomfortable, and it clearly is, it’s something we should avoid.

        • A note on my extensive use of “female”/”male” in this post:
          As Maverynthia pointed out, “women” is the noun to use when referring to gamers, developers, and consumers.

          In this particular post, I used “female”/”male” almost exclusively because we are not talking about humans, but specifically non-human creatures. For instance, Tauren may differentiate the sexes with “bull” and “cow” or something entirely new like “birk” and “quib.” To many, “woman” implies “human woman”, which the humanoid creatures discussed here are not.

          (I didn’t used to make much of this distinction in the past, but it threw readers in my latest novel with I referred to the goblin protagonists as “women” or “men” and they expected a human to be in the room)

      • Lucas says:

        You called me out on this before, and kudos. It’s a usage I’ll avoid.

  3. Osephala says:

    While on the terms of in-game models, let me bring up the Female Worgen. Compared to the Male Worgen, the difference is overwhelming. I found this pic on google images, but check it out.

    http://oi53.tinypic.com/fep3dg.jpg

    It seems that Blizzard didn’t even attempt to make them similar in any way. Unlike the males, the females lack a wolf-like head, a ferocious snarl, different coloured, glowing eyes and a stature that makes them seem feral and vicious. Instead they are given a chihuahua-like head with a turned up nose, a back of the mouth, half-snarl, bulgy human-like eyes that don’t glow and a very different stature than the males of the race.

    I can’t even begin to say how disappointed I was in this. If you look at the Male and Female Goblins, it’s clear how much time was spent on making them look amazing, hell, they even look like they belong to the same race. The Worgen, though? It’s as if a week before Cataclysm was released, they realised they hadn’t even spent time on the Female Worgen and just threw together the model.

    I have a couple Female Worgen, but I’m probably going to reroll them as Male, because they just look so damn silly. I was really looking forward to making them and I was severely disappointed.

    It’s things like you mentioned in your post above and the Female Worgen debacle that make me feel like Blizzard doesn’t care about the females in this game.

    • kinelfire says:

      I’m pretty sure that through the beta phase of Cataclysm, female Worgen didn’t exist. They *might* have shown up at the very end, but I think it wasn’t until the game launches in December that we all got to see. There may have been technical issues with the rendering, but it certainly came across as ‘Blizz forgot about the women’.

      On the goblins – all the male faces I’ve seen tend to be… well, goblinish. The female faces are all pretty, even with the bone through the nose (yes, really. A bone.) /sigh

    • Wow, that Worgen image takes the cake; thank you for sharing the link. The Tuskarr & Taunka examples in my post were pretty bad, but at least those were just NPCs. When even the Player Character models look that shoddy and last-minute… Ugh. It’s just further proof that the existence of women is an afterthought. Makes me glad I stopped supporting Blizzard with my money and didn’t buy Cataclysm. Enough is enough.

      Here are a couple links for anyone who wants to see a comparison between goblin sexes:
      http://images.mmosite.com/bbs/upload/2010/06/01/dadb0bbe6dba006fdb045302b2436e70.jpg
      http://images.mmosite.com/bbs/upload/2010/06/01/4439b8b5f215b1ea8247abe726d2c019.jpg
      (Like the Worgen, their facial structures are so different, they almost look like different species)

  4. Ohma says:

    It’s extremely frustrating, particularly if the setting bills itself as somewhat serious sci-fi. Like a big example that Korva mentioned: Mass Effect. Why they thought it made more sense for every Turien, Hanar, Elcor, Salarian, and Krogan in the first game (and almost all for the second) to be male due to not feeling like putting the effort in to get woman-y sound bytes for them is beyond me. Seriously how the hell would I know the difference without actually learning about the (quite possibly near impossible to notice without basically telling Shepard to check) differences between alien sexes? I don’t think there are many people who can tell what sex say, a crow is just at a glance. (and then there’s their extremely stupid indecision about whether Asari are actually women or sexless)

    This is one of the reasons I love Startopia. All but one of the alien races are represented with a single model though it’s all but explicitly stated that most of them have at least two sexes. The sexy humanoid psychic race are the only ones with discernible sexes (probably because they’re the closest to human looking), and both sexes are equally represented, not terribly clothed, and have the exact same job should you hire them (and barring differences in employee skill level and other stats which are randomly generated for every visitor, both sexes will be equally capable of working in that job).

    • Lucas says:

      The message I hear from games with such gender misrepresentation is “It’s too difficult not to make women who aren’t almost naked.”

      The Asari’s representation annoys me to no end. Whether they’re sexless is a red herring, because either way Bioware obsesses over their sexuality. Asari are subject to the same assumptions people make about those who openly identify as bisexual: that they’re promiscuous and will sleep with anybody.

      Look at the Asari in the games: they are a sophisticated and educated race, with occupations ranging from the height of power to more blue (ahem) collar jobs, like security guards. An Asari might mate only once in her (for lack of a better pronoun) millennial lifespans. They are open about sex, but not obsessed with it.

      Yet, unless you pursue a romance with Kaiden or Ashley, you have to actually be mean to Liara to keep her from sleeping with you. The Consort quest ends with “thanks for helping, here’s some sex.” The vampiric femme-fatale companion from ME2 (name?) is such a tired trope. Not to mention all the freakin’ cleavage. There’s a schism between how they were designed and how they are presented. Would this be any more or less acceptable if Asari were human women?

      Sometimes I hate how much I love these games.

      • Ohma says:

        Ugh I KNOW! It’s madding that despite all this, I too still like the games because they totally click with me in other areas enough for me to not be able to just dismiss the franchise.

        And I mean, it’s one thing to have a narrative where sexuality is present and even important to the plot (after all, it does shape a fair bit human culture and perception to put it mildly). However it’s another thing for sex/sexuality to basically only be there in such a way that it suggests that the people associated with it are only worth considering as means to satisfy the sexual desires of a different group.

        On the plus side, talking about this does at least reassure me that my partners and I are actually working on positive projects that might actually maybe help a future generation grow up to be better able to treat each other as equals.

  5. Trodamus says:

    Mass Effect could have gotten away with having zero (distinguishable) gender dimorphism among its alien denizens; it’s a huge leap of disbelief to even think the aliens they’d encounter would be humanoid, much less follow a pattern of dimorphism humans would pick up on, much less that those patterns would be similar to human somaforms and phenotypes. Likewise, they should have a hard time distinguishing between male and female humans.

    At this point, if Bioware wanted to save face, they could actually use that scientific explanation and let us know that the Turien “Air quotes” Counselor is, in fact, a matriarch of their species, or that the Elcor production of Hamlet was being done by an all-female cast of Elcors as some kind of historic in-joke.

  6. This sort of thing has annoyed me since, like, middle school (which was well before I was female identified). There’s no reason nonhuman races should fit into human standards of gender or sexual dimorphism. Especially if they aren’t mammals (which doesn’t so much apply here, except to the wildkin, naga, and murlocks, who weren’t really the focus of the article)

    Though: “I’m not sure either way if any Gnoll, Murloc, or Furbolg NPCs in the game are female or if they, like the Tuskarr and Ogres, are an all-sausage race.” Would it be possible to not use references to penises to refer to men, because, well, I and many other women have penises, and it’s kind of unpleasant to be lumped into the category with men.

    • Nezumi says:

      On the other hand, we rarely see any examples of extreme sexual dimorphism that comes up in nature, except when it’s done to make the males of a species ugly and the women sexy. There are some species of spider where the difference in size and appearance between sexes is so great that a casual observer might not realize they are the same species.

      We also never really see sexual dimorphism in which the female sex is the larger and more powerful one, despite that actually being fairly common in nature. Spiders, reptiles, and amphibians frequently have larger females, for starters.

  7. melponeme_k says:

    There are many, many men out there who hate women. Unfortunately a great many of them work in the video game industry.

    There is no other explanation for it except hatred. Especially when there are continual protests about the lack of strong, female protagonists or the lack of a female presence at all in games. But the developers in the most successful game in mmo history staunchly refuses to add more females or bolster the ones they have. It is hatred when despite the protests against plate bikini gear, developers keep putting them in games. I already see that RIFT is more of the same old, same old.

    • Come on, no other explanations? :) People aren’t that simple. There’s disdain and hatred, but there’s also ignorance and fear. Yes, ignorance – there are continual protests, but there are continual protests about absolutely everything and they don’t always get read at all. The fact that people complain isn’t enough, because there are also people who protest against strong female protagonists, and there are certainly people who protest loudly against the very idea of taking away their stupid chainmail bikinis. You need someone to actually understand the issue, not just respond instinctively to complaints.

      On the fear side, you ahve those afraid to challenge the status quo in case that means “it won’t sell” and they’ll all starve. Without someone actually on board enough to really care about why the issues matter and push the company to do what’s right, they cower. I’ve seen an awful lot of developers looking shamefaced about their own self-censorship.

      • melponeme_k says:

        The biggest name in the business, the game that has enough clout and power to change the system does nothing.

        The only explanation is hatred. We’ve all come far enough to know what is more enlightened and what is dark aged.

        People are trained to play these games like performing seals. None of them will lose business if the female characters are fully dressed or the lead is female.

        • Trodamus says:

          Never attribute to malice what might be attributed to ignorance instead.. That’s what my grandpappy always used to say. That and, If you go back in time, don’t touch anything for fear of temporal paradox!

          Anyway, hate is such a strong, absolute and ignorant word that goes along side the evil descriptor in what it accomplishes: nothing. I mean, if they all “hate” women, we might as well just go home since hate is very rarely among the things you can change about a person (or group).

          • melponeme_k says:

            Well here we are discussing the same problems for the millionth time. Nothing has changed. WoW still has ridiculous armor for it’s female characters. The newest IT MMO coming out has ridiculous armor for it’s female characters.

            Not one MMO out there has important female characters as leads without them being attached to some man or being some kind of Virgin Mary like icon.

            If no one wants the plain truth, lets sugar coat it then. CONTEMPT. By and large the developers feel contempt for us and our opinions. Their whole attitude recently has been we are going to do what we want and you have to pay us for it.

            Obviously the time has come for us to stop paying them. Now does anyone have the fortitude to do it? Can any of us turn off the machines?

            • Obviously the time has come for us to stop paying them. Now does anyone have the fortitude to do it?

              I do. It’s important enough to me that I wanted to include this fact in the opening line of my article. If Blizzard made WoW a game with women characters I could be proud to play and interact with, you can bet they’d be cashing in on my monthly subscription fee and the $50 for Cataclysm. (Hell, I’d probably be playing it right now instead of writing this comment.)

              I enjoy games for the fantasy, the “what if?” factor of playing on another world, and to feel heroic and larger-than-life. When the environment in WoW is more abrasive and sexist than my actual daily life, I won’t be paying for the privilege. I would encourage other frustrated gamers to do the same and vote with their wallets.

      • Well, it’s still misogyny if you’re doing it because fans are telling you to…

        And I’m not sure fear really explains the marketing decisions all that well. Because from a purely marketing standpoint it should be pretty clear that ignoring half your potential audience is a bad thing. It seems to me more like it’s cognative dissonance; the people have always marketed primarily at men to the exclusion of women and don’t want to admit that they and others like them have been doing something wrong for a very long time.

        But yeah it is more complex then simple hate; because privilege tends to skew your perception of the world, so they probably really are well intentioned and see their misogyny as just how things are done.

  8. Eudora says:

    Hello, new to the site (just barely registered) and I’ve to say that I’m surprisingly pleased that there are others out there that share same views as I do, I was starting to feel alone.
    Anyhow, I would like to add something that I’ve come across, incase you missed it.
    http://eu.battle.net/wow/en/forum/topic/1267106830
    Notice the blue post? Their excuse is that due to the fact of many immature replies they are closing/locking the post. To me it seems more like that they cannot handle the fact that there are women gamers that are getting tired of all the injustice, abuse and sexism ingame. I don’t doubt that there are some sick guys out there using vulgar language but if that’s the case they could simply continue deleting and banning those post and keep the forum open.
    Instead they choose to ignore the issue and in a way to silence us.
    Will it ever end? It’s not enough the treatement we receive in real life but now the abuse and ignorance ingame aswell? Sigh, it never ends.

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