One of the most irksome things I hear when I make arguments for ‘good/positive portrayals’ of characters from traditionally marginalised backgrounds is that my interlocutors immediately assume I’m calling for portrayals of moral paragons. They seem to think I’m saying “if you write a gay male character, he must be the most righteous dude ever.”
In a word, no. That’s what today’s article is about, particularly with regards to women characters.
The reality of the situation is that the portrayal of women as pure, stainless alabaster icons of virtue is a huge problem that arises from cultural stereotypes of women. The notion that women are inherently more virtuous, kinder, and so on is part of the limiting and fetishising pedestalisation that serves to fence us off from being thought of as persons. Human beings are flawed characters with failings and weaknesses; angels are not.
When I call for ‘good portrayals’ I do not mean that all women should be virtuous. On the contrary, I actually want to see more women as villains, or as morally grey/dubious characters. The simple reason for this is that such figures can be fascinating, merit much discussion, and are fully human. Think of your own interests in fiction: what characters do you love to hate? Who is your favourite villain? What character could keep you up for hours at night as you discuss their philosophy and the writing behind them? Which characters have you debating their morality: good, evil, anti-hero? We all have answers to these questions, and that alone tells us why ‘good portrayals’ include morally flawed/villainous characters by necessity.
My objection to femme fatale villains is not that they are villains, but that women’s agency is always reduced to sexuality in such portrayals. Consider the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons, for instance. The women are defined by rampant, unchained sexuality that is used to literally dominate men. There’s nothing interesting in this, save as a rather specific form of pornography perhaps. Moral weakness, failure, compromise, and villainy are about much more complicated motivations than luring men to their dooms with T&A.
My favourite character of all time is a woman who is widely considered a villain: Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. My love letter about this character can be found here, but for the purposes of this article the main points to raise about are these: her character is defined by a philosophy, she is not reduced to sex, she is an agent whose motivations are complicated, her morality shades into a good deal of grey.
It’s hard to peg Kreia as pure evil. She isn’t. Her overarching, long-term goal is ultimately a positive one: she wants to eliminate the new Sith threat as much as you do (if you’re a light-side character), but for her the ends justify the means. Throughout the story you’re treated to many examples of Kreia’s richly self-justified taint manifesting itself in odious actions that service the greater good she has in mind. She is utterly driven by hard-won truths in a life that has been struck by torture, betrayal, and the harshest kind of learning. It produces a figure who is conscious of how far she has fallen, but will use her last gasps of energy to train someone who “may yet be saved.”
If you are a moral idealist, as I try to be, her incredibly well-written dialogue will force you to account in detail for why you believe what you believe. You may disagree strongly with what Kreia does, but you cannot deny she has her reasons—reasons she’ll talk about at length which define her character.
This is far more interesting than what we usually get.
Another example of such a character comes to us in the form of Dragon Age 2’s Knight Commander Meredith. She is horribly undermined by an ending that, in my view, reflects lazy writing and was perhaps the game’s worst moment, but you are otherwise shown an equally morally compromised woman who struggles mightily to do what she feels is right. Machiavellian evil is fascinating because it most closely imitates the evil we see in the real world. Most people are not Snidely Whiplash-esque moustache twirling sociopaths who do evil because it’s funny to them. Evil manifests itself in our world mainly in the form of people who are utterly convinced they are doing the right thing. Morality is rather tricky like that.
Knight-Commander Meredith is one such person. She is introduced to you quite forthrightly, her sword running through a powerful Mage on the verge of killing you. But she quickly evolves into an adversarial force. Meredith is a holy Templar commander driven by her desire to ensure that the Circle Mages under her command in Kirkwall are kept under control and do not become blood mages or abominations. With this in mind, she justifies increasingly onerous restrictions on their freedom. A literal red scare takes hold of her city as she sees the dreaded “blood mages” around every corner, purges becoming a regular feature of life in the city of Kirkwall. But through it all it’s impossible to walk away feeling Meredith has not thought this through. She commits moral wrongs in the name of moral rectitude; her convictions are deeply held and premised on fear of Mages with freedom causing widespread destruction. Meredith has considered all the arguments against her ideology. She is, you learn, painfully aware of the hurt she causes but believes strongly that she is resolutely holding back the tide of a greater evil.
To challenge her is to only compel her to stand her ground, and in a stentorian voice that feels like living scripture, she enjoins you to give her a better solution to this Gordian knot of a crisis between Templars and Mages. If you cannot—and indeed your character cannot—“then do not brand me a tyrant!” she thunders.
This is how you write a villain, and this is how you portray a woman as a human.
The most compelling characters make you think, and sometimes the most intriguing villains are those who are not outright evil, but who are morally compromised. Good people corrupted by the difficulties they confront, who convince themselves that the ends they envision are worth wicked means.
Other examples include Mother Petrice from Dragon Age 2, a quietly zealous manipulator who, again, is committed to doing what she sees as right. In a beautiful moral contest, Grand Cleric Elthina—her superior— can be shown chastising her for her radicalism, telling her “Eternity is long enough that we do not need to rush to meet it.” Elthina’s moderation contrasts with Petrice’s blossoming zeal. The struggle here is not one of cattiness, nor does it revolve around a man, but around a profound theological rift that each woman has her own struggles with.
Moral complexity is wonderful, but you can also write complicated, interesting out-and-out evil. The Old Republic has a woman villain who, in an MMO with an enormous cast, manages to stand out: Lord Zash. While her physical beauty is occasionally remarked upon, what drives the story of the Sith Inquisitor class are Lord Zash’s manipulations and a carefully planned game of chess that testifies to a truly devious and thoughtful mind. A scholarly genius and an intelligent (rather than brash, impulsive, and childish) Sith Lord, she plays a long game leaving you to wonder if you’ll be ensnared next. Her evil is not the showy, infantile evil of your usual hyper-macho scarred Sith Lord (with the way some talk, it’s not hard to imagine some go out of their way to kick puppies and steal candy from babies). It is, instead, the evil of careful, strategic planning born of a true intellect. Each strike is the solution of an equation, a carefully calculated blow rather than an impulsive iota of violence-for-the-sake-of-violence.
Speaking of such, I’m making a note here to say that GLaDOS was a triumph (if ever there was one).
There are many ways to write such characters, of course, but careful attention given to motivation ensures that a character’s humanity—rather than a fetishised gender/race/sexuality—is what defines them as a narrative figure. Kreia is motivated by a drive to stop the Sith from using an ancient evil to consume all life in the galaxy, and by a long nursed hatred of the Force itself, as well as a desire for her as a teacher to have a successful student. Knight-Commander Meredith sees herself as the woman who must make painful choices to ensure peace and order in Kirkwall, and to stop Mages from becoming abominations that threaten the lives of all. In the name of all the above, they will commit to doing repulsive things.
At no point do we find ourselves harping on their looks, their sexuality, any femininity they may possess, or any other fetishised quality. Neither is turned into a man-hating caricature. And neither is a fundamentally morally righteous person; instead, they are human beings whose profound flaws are a part of their characters. What constitutes their “immorality” is also, crucially, not at all related to their sexualities.
Consider my title here: “Immoral Women.” Even now it conjures images of promiscuous, ‘loose’, or otherwise proudly sexual women, which is a testament to the suffocating and dehumanisingly limited framework with which women are saddled. I want that notion of immorality to be expanded to be something more fully human.
Speaking of fuller humanity there is another note that must be made, one of great importance when it comes to conceptualising “women”– it is a reminder that the category “woman” includes women of colour. I adore all of these characters, and am always grateful I have all these examples of great morally compromised women to choose from… and yet also dismayed that they all are, or appear white. Everything I’ve said hitherto applies just as much if not more to the lack of morally compromised, strong women of colour in games. Isabela from Dragon Age 2 is not a villain but as a rogue/pirate/renegade, definitely skirts the outer limits of ethics– and her struggles therewith define her character well. But it’s hard to think of many other women of colour with Kreia-level thought invested in their characters, regardless of whether they’re heroes, villains, or anything in between.
This brings us back to the beginning: the role of moral diversity in character portrayals and my sincere desire to see more women (all-inclusive) as villains and compromised figures. Perhaps part of the communication problem I have is that I use the word “good” when I say “good portrayals,” which leads people to think of it as a moral proposition. What I really mean is “well-written.” This includes the full spectrum of morality, it includes amorality, it includes immorality, and everything in between and beyond. Humans are flawed, and humans are capable of that full range of emotion, motivation, and morality.
No human is a true moral paragon of perfect righteousness. This is not a pessimistic statement about human nature, far from it. It is merely recognition that many people have intricate characters to some degree, and that because women are human, we can commit great wrongs as well as do good. What influences our sense of ethics is a complicated melange that no Madonna/Whore dichotomy can ever hope to capture.
The key to getting past stereotypes is recognising this.