Saturday, September 28, 2013

On the Elusive "Good Female Character"

I think the women of M14 could have shown a little more skin.

Is that weird? The women look absolutely phenomenal. Banisher Priest is both eminently feminine and completely battle-ready. Chandra, Pyromaster has neither the backbreaking pose of Chandra, the Firebrand nor the basketball breasts that dominated the advertising. I hadn’t kept up with the M14 spoilers for school, so I was hit with the complete set at once via DailyMTG’s visual spoiler.

Archangel of ThuneAs I first started looking through the cards, I thought it was a fluke. Some artists (I’m looking at you, Michael C. Hayes) consistently draw women in character-appropriate attire and poses. I figured somehow all of these had gotten clumped at the top.

But as I scrolled through row after row, without a single battle bikini or cheesecake pose to be seen except on reprints, I seriously began to tear up a little. It was sinking in that they had actually listened to us—to me and my friends and all the countless others who speak up again and again, who ask for the characters representing us to be portrayed as meaningfully as the characters representing the male players. (I would also like to acknowledge the many non-women who make this same request.) They had made an entire set of women who actually looked like women going about their business, not like props.

The Sexy Spectrum

At the same time, something felt a little odd. While each individual card in M14 looked fantastic, there was something about the set as a whole. It was a world without sensuality, a very conservative world. Which can be interesting as a characteristic of a world. Innistrad, for example, is canonically very cold (although a couple of the characters’ inexplicable costume designs give new meaning to the phrase “freezing your tits off.” Just imagine the wind!) 

Woodland SleuthCurse of Stalked Prey

My worry on seeing M14 was that our request had been misunderstood. That people might think we hated sexiness or wanted to slut-shame women who showed skin. Thankfully, that fear has been allayed by the character design in Theros, where men and women alike wear minimal clothing. 

This tells a story—I assume that Theros is very hot (poor Elspeth!) and they use agility and magic instead of steel to protect their vital organs. My friends and I have debated my choice to buy this print—my argument is that since we know Michael C. Hayes can and regularly does paint women in battle gear and battle poses, his decision to sex this one up tells us more about the character than about the artist.

WakedancerWhich brings me to my original statement—women come in all varieties. Some have no desire to be sexually appealing, and make an effort not to be. Some are incidentally sexy whether they’re dressed conservatively or revealingly. And some make a concerted effort. It is really nice to see Magic art embracing a broader spectrum.

I always use Wakedancer as my go-to for provocative clothing done right—her magic is from dance, a potentially very sensual medium, and it would make complete sense for her to choose a suitably sensual outfit.

What I like to see on a female character isn’t the specifics of her clothing at all—it’s about agency. My friend calls this The Natasha Principle: Does this woman look like she picked out her own outfit, choosing something appropriate for what she planned to do that day?

Strong vs. Strongly Written

So why didn’t I say anything about my concerns when M14 came out? I pretty much just called it a home run and left it at that. The reason: I didn’t want people to feel like they can’t win, like we’ll never be satisfied. The set was a huge and beautifully executed step in the right direction, and I wanted to take some time just to appreciate that.

But I was recently inspired to think about the complexities of the issue by this blog post that I found on The author talks about the difference between strong female characters and good female characters. In her words, “A female character does not have to be 'strong' (whatever your definition of that is) to be a good character. Women can be strong, or wussy, or emotional, or stoic, or needy, or independent, and still be legitimate people and interesting characters.”

Elspeth, Knight-Errant
But certain tropes, such as the damsel in distress, have become contaminated by too many stories where that’s all there is to the woman. As a result, characters get derided for coming too close to the cliché. Elspeth, who is a survivor of severe and chronic developmental trauma and has moments of great fragility, seems to be a very polarizing character. (I don't read the books but from the little I've seen I am a big fan.) Easier just to say “No damsels in distress” than to make sure your character is more than that—and that people get it.

There are so many complaints and many of them seem contradictory. If a lawyer character wants a husband then she’s a cliché of women always needing a man. If she doesn’t, she’s a cliché of professional women being frigid. Even if the character is beautifully executed, the media’s portrayal of gender roles is so warped that every detail is fraught with deeper meaning that can then be picked apart.

Creators who I talk to about this usually want to do right, and I really feel for their frustration. I want to promise them “Follow this list of rules, and everything will be okay. You can feel confident about your characters and nobody will ever attack you.” I mean, I want to be able to tell them that. I want such a list to exist.

But in the end, I suppose, everybody has be able to trust their own judgment as creators. It comes down to being able to say, “I thought about this thoroughly, I listened to people’s concerns, I searched my own conscience, and this is what I came up with.” If you’ve given it your best, it’s not my place or anyone else’s to tell you otherwise. We can raise our objections, of course. And we will. We all have our concerns. But it’s up to you to decide whether you're going to change your path accordingly.

Keep listening. Keep learning. Keep trying. I couldn’t ask for more.