One thing about the most recent episode of Titansgrave I wrote about, which actually really struck me and got me thinking, was Laura Bailey’s surprise that the “Prophet” was a girl. For those of you not familiar with the setting, Titansgrave has a backstory where a powerful woman and prophet of sinister forces arose, causing a massive conflict called the “Chaos War”. This war only ended when a team of plucky heroes – naturally – defeated her and then sealed away her essence in an extradimensional prison. During the war she was usually referred to as “The Prophet”, which is a rather ambiguous title and the term “Prophet” can be used for either a male or female. The interesting thing about what happened isn’t that Laura was confused, it’s just how it highlights something about how we typically view characters – especially powerful ones.
Being male is regarded as the default and it’s something I’ve noticed for a long time in my own games. In many cases if I don’t explicitly gender a character, usually with a feminine sounding name or pronoun, most players will tend to assume they are male until told otherwise. The assumption isn’t an inherently negative one, it’s just something that exists and it can lead to situations like what happened in Titansgrave: Players can be genuinely surprised to find out that their enemy/ally is actually a woman. A good example is in Trail of Cthulhu when I first introduced the character of Smile, where most of the players assumed it was a he until their characters directly saw it was a woman.
Defaulting a characters gender to male is not an exceptional or random thing, because it comes from years of media exposure in general. Consider that in the Lord of the Rings, there are no major female characters who travel with the group to Mordor – the core cast is all male. Similarly in the Hobbit they had to actually write a specific character who didn’t originally exist in Tauriel to have any significant women in the film. Another example are the Star Wars movies, where women are generally limited to a handful of roles in Padme in the prequel trilogy and Leia in the original trilogy: Both of whom are surrounded by generally male characters who “Do stuff”. Finally consider for a moment the recent Avengers movie, where only one of the heroes is a woman in a team of six. Guardians of the Galaxy is similar, albeit at least more quirky with a humanoid plant and talking racoon in the mix, with one of the characters in the team being female.
I’m not going to belabor the point here and give some kind of list, but the idea is that being female is the exception to the norm. That “norm” is that, generally speaking, most characters are written to be male or assumed to be so from the start. Nobody has used this assumption against players better than Nintendo, where in the original Metroid (if you completed it fast enough or with a high enough %, can’t remember which off hand) you got a surprise: Samus took off her helmet. The “big reveal” was that Samus was a woman and not a man, which would have been the opposite default “gender” most players would have assumed. This was so shocking at the time, that it’s usually regarded as one of the biggest “twist” endings in video games.
Of course that was quite a while ago, but even today female protagonists and the idea they can be leads has a considerable amount of resistance. Likewise, even in huge budget triple AAA games where women aren’t inherently protagonists there can be surprisingly few, if any, significant women of any note in the story. Well, unless you count victims, common targets for being captured by the main antagonist or just general random NPCs of no real note. Again, without getting into any kind of significant “list wars”, it’s easy to see why even now it’s still a surprising fight just to have women anywhere. Both as protagonists and as well written characters in a variety of non-victim or non-refrigerated related roles otherwise.
Don’t think for a moment that tabletop gaming is immune to these kind of views either. While Wizards of the Coast has done wonders with the art in Dungeons and Dragons, particularly in the representation of female heroes and people of color (PoC) there were some interesting reactions from some. In a now infamous RPG.net thread we can see a demonstration of these attitudes, which saw an individual poster asking a question of why the majority of the art in the book was of “women” and even called it “excessive”. Now let’s be clear that this opinion was not celebrated on the forum whatsoever and the topic creator rightfully got called out for it. The original poster even subsequently made an apology – which you can assess for yourself here – and that’s all the focus on the issue I’ll give to these posts.
What’s remarkable is just how little art of women in the book compared to men was all it took to make someone think “The majority of art was women”. In an excellent analysis and breakdown of all of the art in the book on I have no Game and I must Blog, we actually see that the majority of characters are male (55% male, 34% female with the remainder being ambiguous) and the vast majority are light skinned (67% light, 22% dark). The numbers here still being more than firmly in favor of men, still leads some to argue that there are “too many” women in these books. Once again, consider that in most of the fiction on TV, movies and similar being a woman is usually exceptional on a team full of men. There is 1 female avenger and 5 other men, there are no significant women whatsoever in the Lord of the Rings, most TV shows are a team of men with the odd woman and so forth (NCIS for example has 4 main field agents, with one being female).
This also applies to other games as well, like with the recently released tactical strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In the expansion of the game, Enemy Within, the developers made an interesting decision with regards to the RNG (random number generator) that spits out if you get a woman or male soldier when you hire them. They made the numbers 50/50, so you had an equally high chance that you would get a female or a male soldier. Naturally there were several rather shocked forum threads cropping up, where some players were rather miffed or even confused that they would get a high amount of women. Some even felt that the RNG was entirely biased to give female soldiers over male soldiers, despite the fact it was a purely equal chance!
The fact is, most people default to a male gender because that’s who we see “doing stuff” all the time in most media, or depicted in the art in books – though I have to say many RPGs I’ve bought recently, like FFGs Star Wars are doing exceptionally well with their art recently – and so on. About the only time you can assume a woman is in a role is generally when you’re talking about some kind of victim. Of course how do you solve this problem? Well the solution is twofold: Firstly support creations where women are not just the lead protagonists, but have multiple roles in the story themselves. Secondly, if you’re a DM or GM try to write more women into games and into more diverse roles! When you can think of a campaign or a movie or whatever, where you can name a large group of female characters across a variety of roles, it won’t continue to be surprising to see anyone who isn’t that “default” in there.