All the Slender Ladies: Body Diversity in Video Games

#Tropes vs Women in Video GamesSeptember 1, 2016

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Anita Sarkeesian

Executive Director and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Enthusiast

This episode examines the very limited range of female body types commonly seen in games, contrasting this with the much wider range of physiques that male characters frequently possess. We then illustrates that, when female characters appear who do have a body type that is notably different from the slender physique that games establish as the standard, these bodies are sometimes presented as a joke, or as a twisted transgression of social standards and expectations. We examine how this limited range extends to the age of female characters as well, before highlighting a few examples of games that have positive representations of women with different body types and women who are older.

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This episode examines the very limited range of female body types commonly seen in games, contrasting this with the much wider range of physiques that male characters frequently possess. We then illustrates that, when female characters appear who do have a body type that is notably different from the slender physique that games establish as the standard, these bodies are sometimes presented as a joke, or as a twisted transgression of social standards and expectations. We examine how this limited range extends to the age of female characters as well, before highlighting a few examples of games that have positive representations of women with different body types and women who are older.

This is the fifth episode in season two of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. For more on the format changes accompanying season two, please see our announcement on Kickstarter for more information.

Links & Resources

About the Series

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 Kickstarter.com

Games Referenced in this Episode

Overwatch (2016)
Ultra Street Fighter IV (2014)
League of Legends (2009)
Dota 2 (2013)
Batman: Arkham City (2011)
Dishonored (2012)
Enslaved (2010)
Remember Me (2013)
Heavenly Sword (2007)
Final Fantasy X (2001)
The 3rd Birthday (2011)
Devil May Cry 4 (2008)
Splatterhouse (2010)
Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 (2006)
Lollipop Chainsaw (2012)
Blades of Time (2012)
Bayonetta (2010)
Wet (2009)
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (2008)
Primal (2003)
Fat Princess (2009)
Dead Rising (2006)
Metal Gear Solid IV (2008)
The Last of Us (2013)
Life Is Strange (2015)
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (2015)
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II (2004)

Transcript

At their annual Blizzcon event in 2014, the wildly successful game development company Blizzard Entertainment showed off a new game they had in the works called Overwatch. And from that first reveal, it was clear: the appeal of Overwatch resided in its cast of characters, a diverse assortment of heroes, each with unique traits and abilities. The roster revealed at Blizzcon included men and women, sentient robots and super-intelligent gorillas. However, for all the apparent variety and diversity in the heroes Blizzard showed off at the game’s debut, there wasn’t much diversity to be seen in the body types represented by the female heroes.

The male characters introduced that day included the towering knight Reinhardt, the sturdy engineer Torbjorn, the agile archer Hanzo, and the hulking simian scientist Winston, among others. The five female characters introduced consisted of the slender adventurer Tracer, the slender healer Mercy, the slender support character Symmetra, the slender sniper Widowmaker, and the slender but well-armored security chief Pharah.

Overwatch was hardly alone in having all of its female characters share a similar physique. In Ultra Street Fighter IV, characters such as Dhalsim, Hakan, E. Honda, Rufus and Vega represent a significant range of male body types. Looking at the roster of female characters, however, while some may be a bit taller than others or have…slightly larger thighs, not one of them represents a notable departure from the slender body type that has been established as the standard of conventional female attractiveness.

Similarly, when we look at the champions on offer in the hugely popular MOBA League of Legends, we see the designers employing a wonderful range of body shapes and proportions across dozens of male characters, from the classic muscular warrior physique of Taric to the hefty beer belly of Gragas to the cartoonishly disproportionate body of Dr. Mundo. There isn’t any one male body type that is presented as the standard, default male body type, and the value of these characters is definitely not connected to their sexual desirability. However, when we look at the female heroes, there’s nothing approaching the diversity we see on the male side of the roster. There are a few noteworthy variations from the standard–Illaoi is somewhat more muscular than many of the female characters, Jinx has smaller breasts, and there’s the cute, gnome-like Tristana. But the overwhelming majority of female characters make it clear that a slender figure with prominent breasts is viewed as the standard for female character design.

Likewise, in Dota 2, male heroes can be handsome or comical, outlandish or grotesque, while female heroes are mostly relegated to being standard humanoid characters with conventionally attractive facial features. Where are all the female rock creatures, skeletal priests, and…whatever this thing is?

This isn’t just an issue in fighting games, MOBAs, and other titles that give players a range of characters to choose from. Female characters across the board are often limited to that same specific body type.

CLIP: Batman; Arkham City
“I should kill you…”

CLIP: Dishonored
“Doing all right there?”

CLIP: The 3rd Birthday
“Stay away from her!”

CLIP: Devil May Cry 4
“Sure you want to let him go?”

CLIP: Dead or Alive Xtreme 2
“[singing] You are…”

CLIP: Blades of Time
‘[grunt]”

CLIP: Primal
“And this guy wants me to trust him.”

It’s as if male characters are free to embody whatever physique best communicates their personality or abilities, but when it comes to the designs of female characters, that kind of imagination and creativity often doesn’t seem to exist. Rather than seeing such an exciting range of female characters, we mostly get the same body type over and over again: one designed to be sexually appealing to the presumed straight male player.

This reliance on the same body type for so many female characters isn’t just boring, it’s harmful. It links our value as human beings within the culture to our desirability to men, and it reinforces our culturally influenced ideas about who gets to be considered desirable and who doesn’t. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, when we do see representations of women with different body types, they’re often presented as a joke, as in Fat Princess, or they’re pathologized and presented as a twisted transgression of the established feminine ideal, as in the case of the evil lesbian psychopath Jo Slade in Dead Rising.

CLIP: Dead Rising
“Let’s see just how shameless you are, you dirty little skank! Say hello to my little fried!”
“No, not again!”

When the majority of women who populate these game worlds are designed from the same narrow template, the problem isn’t just what we’re seeing in games. It’s what we’re not seeing. The fact that fat women and women with different body shapes aren’t featured in these worlds reinforces the false notion that these women are less valuable and less worthy of recognition than those women whose bodies come closer to matching the cultural beauty standard.

These limitations on creativity when it comes to female characters don’t stop with body type. We also don’t see the same range of ages commonly represented as we do with male characters. It’s not unheard of to see male soldiers, fighters and heroes who appear to be in their 40s, 50s, or even older.

CLIP: The Last of Us
“You’re right.”

Playable female characters, on the other hand, are almost always young, and it’s for the same reason that so many of them have the same body type: they’re intended to be sexually appealing to straight male players. The result is that we have plenty of representations of male characters who communicate that men can continue to be active, vital and powerful over the course of their lives. Meanwhile, the absence of older playable female characters wrongly suggests that women’s value is tied directly to their beauty and youth, and that when they’re older, that value is all used up.

There aren’t many good examples of prominent, positive representations of women with different body types in major contemporary games. In Life Is Strange, there’s the minor character Alyssa, a classmate of Max, the protagonist.

CLIP: Life is Strange
“Oh, by the way, Warren said you borrowed his epic film flash drive. I didn’t know you were a sci-fi geek like us. What’s your favorite?”

In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, there’s Agnes MacBean, owner of the train which becomes the heroes’ base of operations.

CLIP: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
“And may I present to you, Agnes and Bertha: lady and locomotive.”

And in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Kreia is a great example of a capable, powerful older female character.

CLIP: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II
“I am Kreia, and I am your rescuer. As you are mine.”

CLIP: Overwatch Trailer
“Ana, reporting for duty.”

Let’s go back to Overwatch for a moment. Since that initial reveal, a few female heroes have been added to the roster. There’s Mei and Zarya, both of whom have body types that are notably different from those of the originally announced female characters. And more recently, Blizzard announced the game’s next hero, Ana, who is both an older woman and a woman of color. These characters are welcome and encouraging additions, but really, they’re just a start. Game developers need to continue actively working toward creating the same range and diversity in female body representation that we see among male characters. When female characters’ bodies are liberated from the need to uphold narrow, limiting cultural beauty standards, the resulting range of representations can not only make games themselves more interesting; it can encourage us to see all women as the desirable, autonomous, fully human individuals that we are.