A recent thread on the BioWare forums caught my attention, one in which a young trans person gave you quite the (deserved) tongue lashing about the portrayal of trans women in your Dragon Age games as in-jokes and sex workers drawn in a problematic way, a fact that I have drawn attention to myself. What impressed me was the fact that the both of you accepted MsKehoe’s complaints, took them seriously, and addressed them in a thoughtful and largely reflexive way that gives me tremendous hope for the game industry.
So, cheers for that. Really, well done, it’s a model.
I honestly could not ask for better in some of your responses. Both of you understood that intent doesn’t matter, both of you understood that you do not have the right to tell trans people what does and does not construct an unequal society for us (I prefer that phrasing to “offended”- prejudicial portrayals do not simply ‘offend.’ As MsKehoe said: they have instrumental value that operatively does something in the world, not simply make someone feel something.) I was also very pleased with John Epler’s post:
Let’s avoid trying to tell other people what they should or should not be offended by, shall we? And while we’re at it, how about we cut out the armchair psychology.
I’m going to leave this topic open, but I strongly recommend people don’t post unless they have something constructive to say. Which means that I’d rather we cut out the posts telling transgendered people what they should or should not be offended by, as I’m rather certain the majority of us (myself included) have no experience living that sort of lifestyle and dealing with the issues and societal biases associated with it.
That is all.
About my only critique here is that trans people don’t have a ‘lifestyle’ vis a vis being trans anymore than cis folks do, but I understand what he meant and what he meant was spot on: trans people are experts in our own experiences. So, cheers for that too!
But I’m writing today about something that Mr. Gaider wrote that I would like to have a discussion about; in lieu of that I’d like it if you at least considered what I had to say on the subject. In his first post in the thread, Mr. Gaider said the following:
2) Despite the above, the request for other kinds of transgendered characters is reasonable enough. We’ve even discussed it in the writer’s pit from time to time. If anything, we’ve avoided it because it’s a hard sell (in terms of it not coming across as a “gimmick” for a major character), it’s not altogether setting-appropriate (cross-dressing perhaps, but that’s not the same thing) and because unless a trangendered person somehow made themselves stand out (which someone like Serendipity would purposefully do) they’re not going to come across as anything other than the gender they’ve chosen. More subtle nuances of appearance aren’t something we’re really set up to do, engine-wise (not without creating content specifically for that reason).
This is something that I think you and I can have an interesting and productive chat about. You see, I respectfully disagree, and I think that given how open and thoughtful the both of you have been on this subject hitherto you might just understand why. It’s an unashamedly good thing that you want to avoid a trans identity or history becoming a gimmick for a character. But I would go beyond this: is that the only way to portray a trans character? No, it isn’t really. Furthermore, you suggest that a trans character would have to be made to ‘stand out’ brightly in some way (physically or otherwise) in order for their trans-ness to be relevant to their character, and that a respectful portrayal would ensure they would “not come across as anything other than the gender they’ve chosen.” So, ‘why make them trans at all, then?’ you seem to suggest.
I have problems with this line of thinking. It is not really all that different from the thinking that keeps people of colour underrepresented in a lot of movies and TV shows (and video games, for that matter), or that has prevented women from being cast as leads in all of the above. If their ‘otherness’ isn’t vital to the plot or to the character (or to the joke they embody), then they should just be white/male/hetero/cis. If you can see why thinking this about characters of colour and/or women and/or queer characters is incorrect, you can surely see why it’s a problem to think that about trans people. Why? Well, because I exist without my being trans defining every last part of my existence. If I and most other trans people pull that off, surely a fictional trans character can.
Would an example help? If you like fantasy books (taking a wee shot in the dark here!) perhaps the both of you might like Amanda Downum’s The Bone Palace. One of the lead characters is a transgender woman, Savedra Severos, who is drawn as a full character that is not defined by being trans. Downum, with incredible skill, manages to detail little bits of Savedra’s life as a trans woman qua trans woman without letting that take over her portrayal. Savedra’s role in the plot has to do with the arcane politics of the story, not with her being trans. Her motivations are her own, and are as nuanced as those of the cis characters. She is incidentally a trans woman without being invisible. Visible but not tokenised. Human.
Downum herself is cisgender. If she can do it, anyone can.
Consider this possibility: a member of your party with a prominent role in the game happens to be a trans woman. If you get her to trust you enough, she will come out to you, perhaps opening up an incidental plot having to do with something unresolved in her past that’s not strictly apropos the main quest (Alistair, Wynne, and others all had such sidequests). Would you say that being an assassin was important to Leliana’s history if not fully defining of who she was? That this was not her ‘one note’ or ‘gimmick’? If you can thread that complex line you can understand how to portray trans people ethically.
Secondly there is the issue of whether or not trans people exist in Thedas. Mr. Gaider seems to say that we don’t. My question is “why not?” And to the extent we seem to exist, why is it only as sex workers? Now, sex workers are amazing people with powerful stories to tell: my problem with how they’ve been shown in DA is that they come off as less than human, entirely defined by their jobs. Serendipity seemed to have more potential to become a fully fleshed out character, however. Why was that opportunity ultimately missed?
I cannot really say much more about that because it’s really quite a simple matter: why wouldn’t we exist in this world? Trans-ness is certainly very historically and culturally contingent. But the basic phenomena of people having non-male/female genders, or transitioning from one to the other within the terms of their respective cultures is widespread and could easily be adjusted to fit some elements of the setting in DA. To take just one of a multitude of starting points: a Chantry myth about a saint who changed sex, becoming the venerated patron and archetype of Thedosian transfolk.
I’m not in any sense demanding that this be part of Dragon Age III (not that I’d complain!) but rather to suggest that there are a welter of creative possibilities before you for trans-recognition that generates good characters within a believable, setting-native context. DA has been praised repeatedly by me for finding ways to do this with women and with cis LGB people, there’s no reason you all can’t include the T.
Let’s work together on this and let’s keep pushing the horizons of possibility in fantasy, horizons I’ve always believed to be limitless. I think, at the end of the day, you both agree.
Thank you for listening.
Love and Kittens,
Quinnae Moongazer/Katherine Cross