Ms. Male Character – Tropes vs Women

November 18, 2013

In this episode we examine the Ms. Male Character trope and briefly discuss a related pattern called the Smurfette Principle. We’ve defined the Ms. Male Character Trope as: The female version of an already established or default male character. Ms. Male Characters are defined primarily by their relationship to their male counterparts via visual properties, narrative connection or occasionally through promotional materials.

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The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects. This video series is created by Anita Sarkeesian and the project was funded by 6968 awesome backers on

Pac-Man (1980)
Crazy Otto Enhancement Kit Prototype (1981)
Ms. Pac-Man (1982)
Bubble Bobble (1986)
Adventures of Lolo (1989)
Super Monkey Ball Series
Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz (2012)
Where’s My Water Series
Where’s My Water: Allie’s Story (2013)
Giant Boulder of Death (2013)
Rogue Legacy (2013)
Ms. Splosion Man (2011)
Ice Climber (1985)
Sonic the Hedgehog CD (1993)
Bit.Trip Runner Series
Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien (2013)
Bomberman Series
Super Bomberman 2 (1994)
Mortal Kombat Series
Super Mario Bros. Series
New Super Mario Bros. U (2012)
Bare Knuckle III (1994) [Japan only]
Super Mario All-Stars, Super Mario Bros 2 (1993)
Kirby Series
Kirby’s Return to Dreamland (2011)
Super Punch-Out!! (1994)
Scribblenauts Series
Scribblenauts Unlimited (2012)
Army Men: RTS (2002)
Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)
Sonic Lost World (2013)
Bully (2006)
Mega Man Series
Mega Man 9 (2008)
The Wonderful 101 (2013)
Gauntlet (1985)
Crazy Taxi (1999)
EarthBound (1989)
Call of Duty: Black Ops II Zombies Mode (2012)
Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures (1994)
Donkey Kong Series
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (anticipated 2014)
Angry Birds Series
Angry Birds (2009)
Angry Birds Seasons – Hogs and Kisses (2011)
Mario Kart Wii (2008)
Mass Effect Series
Mass Effect 3 (2012)
Thomas Was Alone (2012)
TowerFall (2013)
Knytt Underground (2012)
ScaryGirl (2012)
Ittle Dew (2013)
Lili (2012)


In this episode we’re going to shift the discussion away from plot devices to focus on a pattern in character design and conceptualization which I’ve decided to call the Ms. Male Character.

As always it’s important to keep in mind that it’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media while still finding other parts valuable or enjoyable.

Let’s begin our examination of this trope by traveling back in time to 1980 and the creation of one of the most famous characters in the history of gaming. Initially called Pakku-man in Japan, the name was later changed to Pac-Man when the game hit arcades in the United States.

Incidentally Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man, has stated in numerous interviews that the game was designed to appeal to women because, and I’m not kidding about this, he said, “When you think about things women like, you think about fashion, or fortune-telling, or food or dating boyfriends. So I decided to theme the game around “eating” — after eating dinner, women like to have dessert.”

Luckily Iwatani’s regressive personal or cultural notions about women are not reflected in the finished game itself. Pac-Man went on to became an international sensation and remains one the most recognizable pop culture icons today – but probably not because women are genetically predisposed to “like eating desserts” more than humans of other genders.

Clip-“Wired In” Unaired TV Series
“Hi I’m Lily Tomlin. I’m a Pac-Man freak. It’s alright, I can talk about it now. ‘Course there was a time where I couldn’t.”

The next year, a group of MIT students created a mod for the original Pac-Man arcade cabinets called Crazy Otto which featured 4 new mazes and a new male hero with little legs. The idea was to sell this “enhancement kit” to arcade owners so they could breathe new life into older Pac-Man machines. But because of a separate lawsuit settlement with Atari, they decided to try and sell Crazy Otto directly to Midway, the US manufacturer of Pac-Man cabinets. As luck would have it, Midway was anxious for a follow-up to Pac-Man and worked to transform the mod into an official sequel.

In an effort to continue appealing to female gamers, Crazy Otto was briefly changed to Pac-Woman, then to Miss Pac-Man before finally becoming Ms. Pac-Man (an 11th hour move designed to avoid potential backlash for the 3rd cutscene which features a child born out of wedlock).

The game hit arcades in the United States in 1982 and was an immediate smash hit becoming the most successful American-made coin-operated arcade cabinet ever produced. Like her predecessor, Ms. Pac-Man quickly achieved widespread cultural prominence and it wasn’t long before she was turned into a special marshmallow and added to Pac-Man’s cereal.

Clip- Ms. Pac-Man Cereal Commercial
“Pac-Man cereal’s got a new surprise. When you look inside- it’s shocking! Shocking pink! It’s new Ms. Pac-Man marshmallow! She’s got a shocking pink bow-Oh!”

Ms. Pac-Man was not only one of the first playable female characters, but she also holds the distinction of being the original Ms. Male Character in video games.

I describe the Ms. Male Character trope as: A female version of an already established or default male character. Ms. Male Characters are defined primarily by their relationship to their male counterparts via their visual properties, their narrative connection or occasionally through promotional materials.

This trope is of course part of a long tradition in visual storytelling. The process of creating Ms. Male Characters out of preexisting male heroes has been especially popular in animation and comic books over the past century. When the female spin-off is an exact duplicate, she is sometime referred to as a Distaff Counterpart. Even though the Ms. Male Character did not originate with video games, developers have made generous and frequent use of the trope over the years especially in games marketed towards young people and general audiences.

Clip- Coleco Mini-Arcade Commercial
“It’s Mr. Arcade!
And Ms. Arcade!
Ms. Arcade? Wow
Eat those dots, Ms. Pac-Man!
Into the tunnel!
That couple’s in love!
Yeah, with Ms. Pac-Man!”

Let’s explore this trope in a little more depth by asking a simple question. How do we know what gender a particular character is? Other than their names, how do we know that the collection of pixels on the right signal male while those on the left indicate female?

Well, in order to differentiate Ms. Pac-Man from her already world-famous counterpart, her creators added a series of stereotypical design elements. With only a few pixels to work with, designers built on top of the original Pac Man template, adding a red bow, red lipstick, an eye with makeup, long lashes and a mole as beauty mark. Even though Ms. Pac-Man is essentially a personified shape, in promotional materials she is presented in high-heels with long legs, jewelry and sometimes a feather boa.

The design elements that were used to transform Pac-Man into Ms. Pac-Man are referred to as feminizing gendered signifiers – the bow, the makeup, the long eyelashes are all specific stylistic choices; they are all part of our culture’s visual vocabulary intended to convey information about gender to the viewer. Game designers use these stereotypical attributes as a sort of shorthand to quickly identify a given character as female.
Childlike hair decorations are by far the most frequented accessory used for this purpose. It’s standard practice for creators to, just, put a big bow on top of an anthropomorphized animal or personified object in order to communicate that the character is not male.

The Bubble Bobble series stars heroes Bub and Bob who are charged with rescuing their female counterparts and respective love interests, Peb and Pab.

Lala is the feminized version of the male hero Lolo in the Adventures of Lolo series.

MeeMee’s fills this role as the main protagonist’s girlfriend in the Super Monkey Ball games.

In Disney’s popular Where’s My Water mobile games, we know that Allie is female because she is the only alligator who wears a bow.

The Adult Swim game Giant Boulder of Death takes the trope to ridiculous extremes by gendering a pink boulder with a giant pink bow before she’s stuffed in the refrigerator to motivate the blue boulder to seek revenge.

Now the interesting thing is that these gendered signifiers are really quite arbitrary and abstract. There’s nothing about a bow in and of itself that is intrinsically or essentially feminine; it’s just a piece of colored fabric, after all. But our society currently assigns a very specific, socially constructed and strictly enforced meaning to that piece of fabric. It’s a symbol that conveys the concept of female (and invokes the idea of girlhood.)

The indie game Rogue Legacy has an interesting system whereby you can be randomly assigned the choice of either male or female heirs to play on each run. The characters are essentially identical both mechanically and aesthetically (except for a very minor difference in their breast plate styles). So far so good, but all the female heirs also have a strangely conspicuous and completely unnecessary lavender colored bow on top of their armour. This is a classic example of put a bow on it!

The colour-coding of characters is another frequently used visual element to signify gender. Typically the dominant color used in the design of the female variant is bright pink (although sometimes a purple or pastel palette may be used).

In the 1985 NES classic Ice Climber, player 1 controls Popo who wears a blue parka. If you have a 2nd player they can control Nana who wears a pink parka.

Amy Rose was designed to be a pink female version of Sonic, especially in her early incarnations.

CommandgirlVideo is the female version of CommanderVideo in the Bit Trip Runner indie game series. Her dominant color is purple, she sports a giant bow on her head, and in Runner 2 she is suddenly and conspicuously busty.

The most commonly used gendered signifiers or feminizing accessories are bows, lipstick, long eyelashes and the color pink, but there are a whole host of other design elements that, in combination, serve the same purpose. Other signifiers used to differentiate women from men are pigtails, high-heeled shoes, painted nails, pronounced makeup (especially blush and eyeshadow), midriff baring outfits, exaggerated breasts with exposed cleavage, and a heart motif in their design or powers.

Pretty Bomber is the protagonist’s adversary and sometimes love interest in the Bomberman series. And just to make absolutely clear there is no confusion about her gender, she is decked out in pink, has a giant heart attached to her head and also throws heart shaped bombs.

Gendered signifiers are not mandatory for the Ms Male Character trope to be in effect but these type of stereotypical attributes do serve to “mark” female characters as decidedly different by virtue of their feminine presentation.

Now just to be clear, there’s no inherent problem with the color pink, makeup, bows or high heels as design elements on their own. And of course people of all genders may choose to wear any of them from time to time in the real world and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that either.

However, when designers choose to use the Ms. Male Character trope and its associated visual stereotypes to specifically distinguish female characters from the rest of the cast in a fictional context, it has a few negative consequences.

One repercussion of constantly relying on feminizing signifiers for character design is that it tends to reinforce a strict binary form of gender expression. The gender binary is an entirely artificial and socially constructed division of male and female into two distinctly separate and opposing classes of human being. The gender binary also erases the continuum of gender presentations and identities that fall outside of the rigid masculine/feminine false dichotomy.

And within that strict binary women are “marked” while men get to remain largely “unmarked”.

In the Mario franchise, the Koopalings were originally described as Bowser’s seven children, all of them are male except for one named Wendy O Koopa. We know she is female because her designers used practically every hyper-feminine frill and accessory available to separate her from her male siblings.

Wendy’s six brothers, by contrast, are “unmarked” by gendered identifiers which means they get to be presented in a variety of creative ways. Ludwig’s design communicates intelligence and arrogance, while Lemmy’s reveals his playfulness and Iggy’s makes him seem maniacal and a little unbalanced. Sadly, Wendy’s identity is limited by the fact that she is covered in superficial gendered signifiers. One look at her and you know she’s female, but not much else.

As with many Ms Male Characters, her defining characteristic is her gender.

Wendy also suffers from a parallel condition I like to call “Personality Female Syndrome” wherein female characters are reduced to a one dimensional personality type consisting of nothing more than a collection of shallow stereotypes about women. She is vain, spoiled, bratty and quick to anger.

Clip- “Reptiles in the Rose Garden”
“I don’t care! I want America for my birthday! I want it, I want it, I want it!”

When female characters are “marked” by obligatory stereotypical identifiers it actively limits the range of available options by enforcing a narrow, restrictive and monolithic model for the portrayal of femininity. Meanwhile, since male characters are allowed to be unmarked it permits a much wider array of possibilities for their designs.

I should note that even though pink and purple are strong gendered indicators when combined with other feminizing visual markers those colors are not the exclusive domain of women. An expanded color-palette is something we do see applied to men on rare occasions as with Kirby, Bomberman or Roy Koopa but they are the exception to the rule and are typically only found in colorful childlike (and extremely male dominated) worlds. But if a bow, lipstick, eyeshadow or heels are placed on an otherwise male-identified character the intention, or at least the result, is typically a homophobic or transphobic joke.

Clip- Super Punch-Out
“Heike Kagero!

There are a few optional design accessories for men like neckties or baseball caps but they don’t hold the same significance. They are not ubiquitous or strictly enforced, and are never really used to “mark” men as “not female” in larger fictional universes dominated by women.

Maxwell is the hero of the popular Scribblenauts series. In the fourth game Scribblenauts Unlimited we are introduced to his twin sister Lily who is basically a feminised copy of Maxwell.

The two are identical except for a series of gendered signifiers designed to “mark” her as a female. In the game we learn that Lily is one of 42 children. All 41 of the other siblings are male and all have some trait or interest associated with their name that serves to define their personality (there’s Artie the artist, Buzz the astronaut, Glum the emo-rocker and so on and so forth) and all are unlockable and playable during the course of the game.

By contrast, Lily’s personality trait is essentially being Maxwell’s twin – she has no associated interest or hobby other than being the female version of the game’s hero. In addition to being a Ms. Male Character, Lily is also a particularly pronounced example of another related trope called the Smurfette Principle.

The term was coined back in 1991 by feminist author Katha Pollitt and is of course named after the only female smurf in Smurfville. The Smurfette Principle is the tendency for a piece of media to include only one woman in an ensemble of male characters. The trope is a pervasive problem in video games, manifesting as the “token chick” in any given grouping of heroes, villains or non-playable characters.

An exceptionally stark example of the trope can be found in the original Mega Man series. Over the course of 10 games there are 78 bosses or robot masters and exactly one of them is female, Splash Woman who appears in the 9th game.

In the Wii U game The Wonderful 101, six of the seven color-coded playable heroes are men. The one exception is, of course, the pink hero, named Wonder-Pink! In addition to her smurfette status, she is also afflicted with “personality female syndrome”:

Clip- The Wonderful 101
“I got in late last night. But there was this party! And then the after-party and then the after-after-party. I needed a major powder break to freshen up before meeting you guys.”

Wonder-Pink is shallow, vain, materialistic and flies into a rage at the drop of a hat.

You can find Smurfettes in just about every genre, from dungeon-crawlers, to racing games, from RPGS, to shooters.

Pollitt sums up the crux of problem nicely in her NYTimes article; “The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.”

With that in mind let’s come back to Ms. Pac-Man for a moment. One of the core consequence of the Ms. Male Character trope is that it helps to define women by their connection to men.

So despite her tagline “More than Pac-Man with a bow”

Clip- Ms. Pac-Man Atari 2600 Commercial
“Honey, dontcha know? I’m more than Pac-Man with a bow!”

Ms. Pac-Man’s visual properties are simply an extension of Pac-Man’s original design; she actually kind of is just Pac-Man with a bow. Her simple narrative reinforces the fact that she really only exists in relationship to Pac-Man. She is both his love interest and also the mother of his child.

Dixie Kong is the feminine variant and love interest of Diddy Kong. Note the ponytail and hair ringlets, pink shirt, pink hat, earrings, and eyelashes all to distinguish her from her predecessor. Essentially Ms. Male Characters are feminized imitations or derivative copies of already established male characters. They exist only because of, and in relationship to, their male counterparts.

Ms. Male Characters typically aren’t given their own distinctive identities and are prevented from being fully realized characters who exist on their own terms. This has the, perhaps unintended, effect of devaluing these characters and often relegating them to a subordinate or secondary status inside their respective media franchises, even when they are, on rare occasions, given a starring role in a spin-off or sequel.

One very old and notable example of the Ms. Male Character trope comes to mind. As the story goes, God made Adam in his own image and then later took a rib from Adam’s side and fashioned a woman out of it to be his wife and companion. This Adam and Eve version of the creation myth reinforces a subordinate view of women — man is cast as the original concept and source code for woman who is derived from his body. Essentially Eve is the sequel to Adam, just as Ms. Pac-Man was built from the body of Pac-Man who came before her.

In a male identified society like ours, men are associated and become synonymous with human beings in general. In other words, male tends to be seen as the default for the entire species.

In video games male identification manifests as the tendency for all characters to be male by default unless there is some special reason or specific justification for women to be present in the story.

To help illustrate one of the ways the ”male as default” phenomenon operates in gaming worlds let’s take a look at the mobile mega-hit Angry Birds.

When the game was first released in 2009, the five original birds in the flock were identified by their color and did not include any specific gendered signifiers. Over time, as the game has grown in popularity and the brand has expanded to include numerous spin-offs, real world merchandise and a weekly cartoon series, the birds have been given more distinct personalities and actual names.

Mobile developer Rovio first began gendering birds in February 2011 with the release of their valentine-themed episode for Angry Birds Seasons which includes Ms. Male Character versions of the Red Bird, the White Bird and a Female Pig as love interests. Note the bows, makeup and long eyelashes.

There is a larger unintended consequence to “marking” these birds as female with feminizing gender signifiers; it reinforces that all the other birds and pigs without these specific visual cues are all male by default, unless otherwise noted. The addition of the Pink Bird to the main flock in 2012 further entrenched male as the default setting for the Angry Birds universe.

I should mention that Rovio later stated that the white bird was also female and named her Matilda. This revelation led to a character redesign which has feminized the white bird by adding pink accents, rose cheeks and long eyelashes in the Angry Birds cartoon series – just to make absolutely clear that she is female.

Over in the Mushroom Kingdom we have Toadette who is both a Ms. Male Character and the only woman among the Mushroom people. Her introduction to the Mario-spin off games emphasize the fact that all the other Toads in the entire species are male.

Both the Smurfette Principle and the Ms. Male Character trope create scenarios that reinforce a false dichotomy wherein male is associated with the norm while female is associated with a deviation from the norm.

Everything we have discussed in this episode thus far has been related to visual design or narrative connection. But there is another way that the Ms. Male Character trope can manifest itself, and that is through marketing and promotional materials. A great illustration of this trend can be found in Bioware’s highly regarded Mass Effect series. The games offer players a choice between a male or female version of the protagonist Commander Shepard (each with a range of cosmetic customizable options). The female option is well designed and her overall narrative is also nearly indistinguishable from her male counterpart’s, aside from some of the romance options.

However, if we take a step back from the game experience itself and look at the marketing campaigns for the trilogy, we see that the female variant of Shepard is practically non-existent. In mainstream advertising of the franchise, the male commander is used almost exclusively. His image is front and center on the box covers for all releases including the special editions. He is the one featured in the TV commercials, teasers, trailers, web banners, street posters and print ads and his face appears on most of the magazine covers. All of this positions the male Commander Shepard as the default protagonist of the series.

Clip- Mass Effect Trilogy Trailer
“One man, one very specific man, might be all that stands between humanity and the greatest threat of our brief existence.”

That is how Bioware is selling the Mass Effect experience. Nearly everything about the advertising campaign explicitly tells players that Commander Shepard is a man and by extension associates the official storyline with the male version of the hero. This marketing strategy contributes to the fact that only 18-20% of players choose the female option (despite the fact that Jennifer Hale’s voice acting is widely praised as being far superior).

Clip- Mass Effect 3
“You brought me here to confirm what you already know: The reapers are here.”

Still, the female version has a dedicated fanbase who frequently refers to her as “FemShep”. And although this is meant as an affectionate nickname, it does further highlight her designation as a Ms. Male Character. She is the one with the qualifier attached to her name. She is “Female Shepard” whereas the male version simply gets to be, “Shepard”.

During the advertising of Mass Effect 3, Bioware made a little more effort to include female Shepard with items like an alternate reversible slip cover for the game box (which features the male version by default) as well as a special web only trailer but these gestures feel like an afterthought or niche specialty marketing and hardly what I would call a substantial or equitable inclusion.

While Mass Effect’s advertising strategy might not undermine the story or gameplay, it is a glaring example of how the Ms. Male Character trope can be perpetuated by marketing departments unless careful consideration is given to how gender is represented when advertising games that do offer players a choice.

Now it’s certainly true that in many cases the games starring the female variant are better gaming experiences overall. And taken on their own, each individual example we’ve covered in this episode might seem relatively benign or trivial but the reason this series focuses on tropes is because they help us recognize larger, recurring patterns. Both the Ms. Male Character and the Smurfette Principle have been normalized in gaming and in mass media more broadly. So much so that the two tropes usually pass under the radar and are often reproduced unconsciously – which is part of what makes the myths they perpetuate about women so powerful and insidious in our culture.

The truth of the matter is that there’s really no need to define women as derivative copies of men or to automatically resort to lazy, stereotypical or limiting gender signifiers when designing video game characters.

Clip- Thomas Was Alone
“It was at that moment that Claire realized…she had super powers!”

Claire is a simple blue cube and one of the more memorable characters from the indie game Thomas Was Alone. We know she is female because of her name, her narrative and the pronouns used during gameplay. Claire’s gender presentation doesn’t reduce her to her gender or separate her from the rest of the cast.

Clip- Thomas Was Alone
“Claire needed to come up with a super hero name as soon as possible”

Half of the playable characters in TowerFall are women and the game is also notable for it’s color-code inversion, The Last of the Order wears blue while the Assassin Prince is decked out in pink.

Indie games like the Knytt Underground, Scary Girl, Ittle Dew and the iOS title Lili, all have female characters who resist gendered stereotypes.

Each of these indie games avoids falling back on the Ms Male Character trope or relying on narrow superficial visual markers as a stand in for personality. The visual aesthetics of these female characters displays a range of gender expression and presentation using a variety of hairstyles, colour choices and accessories. Developers can also choose to give players the opportunity to get to know the personality, interests and struggles of their characters. Even with minimal narrative or limited graphics it is entirely possible to make games that feature dynamic women who exist on their own terms.


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