Now, I worded the header of this topic that way only to get your attention! It’s not something I suddenly discovered after near two years of playing and it’s not at all unexpected. Everything is gender biased, and pc/console games more than a lot of other media.
You can say a lot about almost any pc game with a social context when it comes to gender and role playing games more than most, I think. I have played Skyrim för over 1500 hours since 2011 and as interested in gender and gender studies I have almost constantly scrutinized the game from that perspective. I just played through the excellent mod of Falskaar and it inspired me to write a few words about my thoughts on Skyrim and gender. Now before I begin, I have the following advice to those of you who are hostile to gender and feminism or lgbt (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues: don’t bother reading this post, it will do you no good k thanks! Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on gender or queer theory, I have some knowledge, but far from enough for this article to be very bright or insightful for you who are, it'll likely be more like kicking dead horse for you. Neither is this a scientific essay, just a random person's frustrations really
Bethesda's Skyrim (major spoiler alert!)
First of all, a lot of things speaks against Bethesda managing very well when it comes to gender or lgbt. First and foremost it’s a pc/console game. ‘Nuff said really; the game industry isn’t exactly far ahead when it comes to an updated view on men and women, and repeatedly and fervently reproduces values that are (or should be) outdated in the modern world, in my opinion. Secondly, it’s primary audience is young white males, which in all honesty, aren’t the most freewheeling group when it comes to gender, race or lgbt issues. Basically, we’re on top and want to stay that way, in the rare cases we even recognize we actually are. Just look at virtually all media aimed at this group; same values, same crap.
So, Bethesda is bound to fail in this department, but then again, almost all media companies do, question is just how bad.
The first that strikes me is when I create a mothafucking badass orc warrior is that while my face looks absolutely awesomely scary, I’m only allowed to make her thin (not wiry, mind you) and despite the dark, harsch medieval context, she still moves her hips like she’s on a runway. Let’s not even mention boobs. So aside from the face, my Skyrim heroine is forcibly a dorm fantasy. In fewer words, not a body for asswhooping, but for posing; men are allowed to look strong and dangerous and women are allowed to look pretty. Now if I solely used my character to have something wobbly to rest my eyes on while criss-crossing Skyrim, fine, but that’s not what I’m looking for in games like this; I want something I can remotely believe in.
After I had finished all the major questlines it was quite apparent that Bethesda has made an effort when it comes to visibile offical powah. Of the 9 original jarls, 3 are female. It’s not half, but I never hoped it would be. So lets look at these powerful women: One is an old wisened crone, one is a big oaf (cool!) and one is an utter incomeptent completely at the mercy of the men surrounding her, and is repedeatly humiliated thrughout the entire civil war questline. An NPC made solely for scorn, she is by far the most helpless moron of all the jarls (if not the entire NPC crowd). Of the jarls most prominent in the civil war questline as well as the main, all are men. When it comes to other factions it varies, but men outnumbers the women by far. The greybeards, for instance, male exclusive. Presumably because the Graybeards are supposed to be one of the major authorities in the entire game, both in power and wisdom, and if women would be present, that authority would be somewhat compromised. Dragons, as far as I can make out, are all male. At least they all have male voicesets and are all refered to as a he. I guess dragons are mostly handled like animals in childrens’ books here, if they haven’t got a specific female role (like a mom, granny girlfriend or maid) they are all male by default. There are female guards, but they are few. Bandits, I think, are also predominantly male, but there are more women here than in many other factions. Both the thieves guild and the dark brotherhood have a male dominance, but also shine with strong independant female characters such as Astrid, Vex (but how exciting it would have been to have Vex make clumsy moves on whatshisname instead!) and Karliah. The dark brotherhood is the only joinable faction that can boast with an actual live female faction leader (Astrid, or the Night Mother, as you prefer). Too bad Astrid is rather shifty and destined to betray her peers. The other faction led by a female is the Thalmor, reputably evil and manipulative. Funny how the “evil” factions boast with a lot more female characters than “good” ones. The good old image of women as mysterious, weak of character and unpredictable from the 18th to early 20th century literature and psychology springs to mind. There are no named Stormcloak women, however the Legion can boast with one: Legate Rikke, and she’s not the old female stereotype, but all brawn and honor. The Companions have, I think, 3 females out of 10 total members. The Circle consists of 1 female out of 5 members. Aela is both strong, independent and warlike, but also the one (after Skjor’s demise) the only one promoting the chaotic werewolf side of the Companions. Goes well in line with what prominent women in Skyrim often represent (see above). The men of the Companions are all strong, fierce and manly. The Companions, like many other Skyrim factions, is a testosterone heaven. How cool and refreshing wouldn’t it have been with a real gay companion wielding a two handed hammer kicking everyone's’ ass? Maybe TES6! The College have 15 members according to the UESP. Of those, 5 are women, if I remember correctly (I have only done this quest line once). One of them is actually second in command and two are leading the schools of Restoration and Destruction respectively. Cool! The Arch-Wizard is, naturally, male.
I won’t delve very deep into the DLC’s, it would be too lengthy, but a few choice words can be said about each of them regarding gender. Dawnguard introduces two major factions, the Dawnguard and the Volkihar vampires. The Dawnguard (good aligned vamp hunters) has 5 members of which 1 is female. Sorine is an engineer whose clever machinations help the player annihilate vampires all the quicker. She’s a bit of an eccentric, living the life an obsessed hermit seeking lost dwemer technology in the wilderness. Overall badass and not very stereotype. Of the other more generic 10 members, 2 are women. The Volkihar vampires have more female presence, and two of the three leading figures are in fact female, Serana and her mother Valeria. Now this is way better than the Dawnguard, which isn’t surprising, since we’re talking an evil, decadent vamp court where there by logic should be a lot more female allowance. Hey, the female side of things even win if you choose the vampires' side! Aside from the “royal” family though, the 14 members can only boast with 4 females. But Fura Bloodmouth is coolness!
The NPC’s of Dragonborn didn’t deviate from the main game in regards of gender. The main antagonist is male, so are all the major players in the quests, such as Neloth and Storn. The exception being Frea, who plays a major role and is refreshingly competent. She’s even quite down to earth and gives a reliable, conservative impression. The Skaal village otherwise have few prominent women. Their political leader, Fanari Strong-Voice, plays no part whatsoever in anything I could see. I didn’t even notice her until I was about to leave the vilage for the last time in my first playthrough. Raven Rock is led by two male dunmer and as far as I could see, all the guards were male. There is a female trader in town and a few wives, who mostly seem to sit on their bums longing to be somewhere else. The temple staff are male, the mine chief is male and the commander of the guard is male. It seems the only badass dunmer women got fed up and left for Skyrim to become housecarls and archers.
Not a lot can be said about Hearthfire since it introduces very few NPC’s. One thing that struck me though, is how your spouse (if you choose to have one) is only doing cooking, gardening and saying stuff like “Hello dear” (I was annihilated by Janessa's total transformation from being a total badass sniper to a complete bore of a housewife. “You’re not the girl I once knew” was never more true - I so wanted a divorce mod right then!) This is more about the marriage system than Hearthfire, I know. I know you can play a female and have your partner do these things for you too, but how often is that going to happen in real game life (eh? ) But it’s interesting how it’s taken for granted how, with knowledge about the game’s target consumers, this is how your spouse is expected to behave. Have you noticed also how the houses all have a man-cave in the basement, where you can put your forge and hang all your weapons? It just lacks a secret porn collection and it would be all perfect.
Yeah, about marriage and sexuality
What looked to become a big controversy when the game was released, gay marriage, didn’t seem to become a big deal at all, and I applaud Bethesda’s courage. It allowed me at least to play my fenomenal, hairy gay dad barbarian Vadik, who I had tons of fun with. So big thumbs up for that. There ends the free spiritedness, however, since the rest of the game seems to be utterly void of a single gay, transgender, transexual, queer person (openly or otherwise). Of all the tons of NPC’s not a single one. Every family in the whole game is heterosexual. If I’m bending over backwards to find someone, the daedric prince Boethiah is the most likely candidate for any queerness in Skyrim. I should mention also that apart from one or two guards shot in the knee, there are no explicitly disabled persons in Skyrim either.
When hobby-analyzing Skyrim like this, it all looks rather depressing, but I’d like to point out that the gaming world is a conservative one and Bethesda has managed to put in a few gems here and there, and at least I appreciate the effort, even if they have a long, long way to go yet.
The mod community’s Skyrim
Now I’d love to say that the people beat the government here, but I’m afraid not Quite the opposite. The brilliant, genius, hard working, unpaid modding community is miles behind Bethesda in the gender/normativity department, probably because they have no interest or need whatsoever to be politically correct. In this case, the result is not so flattering. If you set out to check on how men in general and women in particular are portrayed on the Nexus site, well if you been there, try to conjure up the image of women exclusive mods there. What do you see? Yeah, that’s right, a pinup. The modding community actually expand what irked me about Bethesda's take on female characters. If I think my orc warrior looks like an idiot moving her hips like that, I’ll find at least 10 mods that makes this way worse. The Nexus is littered with babes, lingerie, pubic hair of style and boobs of all shapes and sizes (some of which I quite enjoy!) For some of the skimpy armor mod users out there, I can point you to this . Now I have one little disclaimer: I play for immersion and like mods that build on that, and I know that's not for everyone. Still, this is apparently how a large chunk of the Skyrim gamers want the Skyrim women to look like, and for me, that's not encouraging to know. Are there any mods that makes female characters walk like a warrior btw? Like they f***ing owned the world? I’ve never found any.
I haven’t got a lot to say about content mods, because I rarely play them. I played Moonpath to Elsewyr but I don’t remember much of it. The only real content mod I’ve played recently is Falskaar, so here goes. First of all, Falskaar is an absolute masterpiece. How that kid could wrap it up the way he did with no budget is so impressive. However, from a gender perspective, is absolutely crap. I wan’t go into quantity here, because there’s little point. All the main characters of the main questline are manly males and the women are reduced to weeping and begging when they go to war, and sometimes being kidnapped by bad men and rescued by good men. As the dock shopkeeper’s wife Freya puts it “I’m also very happy because my husband is happy here. I love that man and want nothing more than to please him.”. That nicely sums the Falskaar women up, I think. Meh.
So what is the problem?
The problems when games, especially rpgs I think, fails so utterly at this, are a few. One being alienation. The gaming community is predominantly CIS male (gender normative males) and the game industry is crushingly hetero normative. This is, naturally, has an alienating effect on the millions of gamers who’re not falling into this category afk/irl. However, an important point I’ve not discussed much in this post (but probably should have) is how men are portrayed in Skyrim and other games. Far from all men identify themselves with the classic violent masculinity replicated in game after game. Personally, I get so fed up from time to time with the men of Skyrim and their boring, conservative view of masculinity, blood and honor; it smells like a really old rug after only a few hours.
But isn’t this how it was in olden times?
Yes and no. And to bring up historical accuracy in a fantasy game like Skyrim is totally moot in my opinion. True, the world has moved forward since medieval times and in most regards both men and women are better off nowadays but this is a fantasy game and I don’t think either the game’s designers nor its player base really want a historically accurate game (you would probably play a farmer and throughout the game you would probably... farm a lot). Point is, in a game with a quasi-historical setting, we choose what part of history we want to keep and what parts we want to scrap. So why would daedric princes, magic, dragons and whatnot be completely acceptable, but not a female regent or a gay farmer couple? Opposed to dragons, gay people are part of actual, real history! And, I’m afraid, games are also rather good at reproducing real life values, in which case Skyrim doesn’t speak too highly of us, in this regard. Gender is also something that we repeatedly recreate in our everyday life and that goes for games well.
I should have put this in the disclaimer maybe, but I’d like to add I absolutely adore Skyrim (if that’s not apparent from my playing hours) but this aspect of it I absolutely loath and it simply doesn’t do it for me.
Better luck in TES8 or so
(edited for typos and minor clarifications)
Edited by Zzimith, 28 September 2013 - 02:15 PM.