by Ashe S
Where would science-fiction and fantasy be without its creatures? While by no means a checklist requirement, you’d be hard pressed to find a more apt visual representation for these genres spanning centuries and cultures and continents. From the dragons and mermaids of countless mythologies to modern incarnations like hobbits and wookies, mythical creatures have always been an emotional and visual shorthand for humanity’s imagination. The relatively recent art form of videogames aren’t any different — if anything, their unique quality as an interactive medium gives you an even greater range of emotional and artistic exploration. Some of my fondest memories as a child was running around as a purple dragon in Spyro and hanging out with frog-dinosaurs in Pokemon, after all, and I’m willing to bet you have a few of your own.
That’s why it’s a real kick in the teeth that so many of these memorable creatures suffer from a debilitating case of ‘Male As Default’ syndrome. Never heard of it? Here’s a breakdown: symptoms generally include jumping to conclusions (“Samus is a girl?”) and incredibly rote design choices for characters who aren’t male. Serious signs may include assuming agender identities are male no matter what, assuming ambiguous identities are male no what and attempting to push aside blatant femininity in favor of masculinity…no matter what. Contact your regular doctor if you notice signs of suspiciously specific denial of reality, casual cissexism and the desperate need to apply feminine markers such as pink hues, high heels and bouncing breasts to any and all concept art sheets.
‘Male As Default’ is far from a mystery. It’s been the reality of Western mainstream media for hundreds of years now and manifests in medical fields and educational institutions all across the country. According to an industry that still has sexual harassment cases and virulent online communities making weekly headlines, this won’t be going down in Videogame Land without a fight. When I turn to games to mete out my fantasies of kicking ass and laying waste to digital foes, it’s disappointing that any characters who are NOT men are pushed and shoved unceremoniously into small boxes. It gets even worse when these characters aren’t human. I’m not referencing humanoid creatures, either — I’m talking robots, aliens, animals, anthros, fantasy creatures, abstract constructs, the whole shebang. Science-fiction and fantasy is where I run to exercise my imagination, only to end up slipping on a metaphorical banana peel.
There have been a slew of video games released with bountiful character casts — Overwatch, Battleborn, Atlas Reactor and Gigantic are just a handful of the ‘colorful online shooters with mass appeal’ titles saturating the market, which is nothing to say of popular franchises and new IPs. As thrilled as I am to see women and girls rising to the forefront in light of extensive media critique, I still can’t help feel the nagging itch of halfway diversity. Studios and producers will put up a good front on paper, but will peter out when it gets to the nitty gritty. Line-up after character line-up has me saying the same thing — “Yes, yes, they’re all thin and smooth-skinned and pretty and human. Yes, of course the surreal hellbeast is the only genderless character option. Yes, of course the scientifically enhanced gorilla will be male. What else do you have for me?”
Consider this a hydra head on the body of misogyny. Simply hacking one off is not enough to slay the beast — you have to get to the root of the issue.
While anthros and animals see the least amount of exploration nowadays, never let it be said they didn’t pave the way. The platformer days of the 90’s saw a plethora of furry protagonists — Crash Bandicoot, Sly Cooper, Ratchet and Clank, Spyro, Banjo and Kazooie, Ecco the Dolphin, Sonic, there seemed to be no limit to the cute animals we could have helming our titles. When it came to girls? Eh. Girls would exist in these games, but always as secondary characters with silly tertiary sexual characteristics, like Crash Bandicoot‘s blonde and bare midriff’d Coco and Sonic‘s pink love interest Amy. Okami‘s Amaterasu, to this day, remains a shining beacon in a sea of nonsense. She’s a wolf goddess referred to with she/her pronouns, frequently dubbed a ‘mother’ by her fellow deities and circumventing stereotypical gender markers in her design. As if that weren’t cool enough, another detail you find is that she’s been reincarnated as a male wolf in another life. While literally everything in this title points to her either being female or genderfluid, you’ll still find gamers scratching their head and going, “So…Amaterasu’s a guy?”
Final Fantasy IX‘s Freya Crescent is another interesting break in the pattern, both for the Final Fantasy series and Western-released videogames at large. While her outfit is plenty pink, her design balances the fanciful and the just plain cool. An anthropomorphic rat woman dressed in a colorful raincoat emblazoned with heraldry and topped off with a winged dragon hat, she’s designed to be neither sexy nor overtly feminine. Even the little bow she wears on her tail isn’t uniquely gendered, with male co-lead Zidane sporting one on his collar. With Red XIII, Cait Sith and Kimahri soaking up Final Fantasy‘s anthropomorphic spotlight, she was real refreshing for a little kid getting her toes wet in RPG-ville. Unfortunately, this is where my list starts to dry up. With all the Krystals and Wendy Koopas and Dixie Kongs of the industry, the name of the game is ‘go boring or go home’. If you need a ponytail or a color to clue you into someone’s gender, consider: Glover‘s titular character is assumed to be male and it’s a fucking glove.
League Of Legends is practically a primer on just how far developers are willing to go in the name of a limited and nebulous ‘diversity’. While there are plenty of female characters, the amount that don’t fall under human or humanoid are next to null. With dozens upon dozens of characters rounding out its line-up, it manages to somehow have one female character that doesn’t fit convention while countless male characters run the gamut from crab monster to furry fox child. Anivia, League Of Legends’ answer to Articuno, is a snow phoenix that uses magic to defend her home from invaders. While Vel’Koz is explicitly genderless and without pronouns, it unfortunately manages to be the only case in a sea of cisnormativity. It’s also a mythical one-eyed void monster. Yeah, that’s unfortunate.
I remember how surprised I was when I fiddled with the character creator in Guild Wars 2 and found I could play as a massive horned cat-beast with very little sexual dimorphism. This isn’t to say this is inherently bad — indeed, it’s all over nature — but rather, that it’s always done in one very, incredibly, supremely boring way to the point I learn to expect little else. That I won’t get the women of fictional worlds larger than men. Heavier than men. Scarier than the men. Some say ‘but lions!’. I take your ‘but lions!’ and raise you spotted hyenas and praying mantises. Browse the comments section of any YouTube video (but don’t make a habit of it) and you’ll see users of all stripes attempting to argue selective reality in their fantasy and science-fiction. It’s an honest rhetorical question: why the hell do so many people’s imaginations fizzle out in genres defined by their redefining of reality? I guess the sky’s the limit ’til you hit the glass ceiling!
We can’t touch on aliens without doing a little homework refresher. Ever heard of Green Skinned Space Babes? How about a Cute Monster Girl? Even the most disinterested glance at TVTropes will give you an idea of how, er…skewed mainstream perspectives are on what the great space void has to offer. The Sangheili, or Elite, from the Halo franchise don’t show the women (who are apparently ‘shorter and lighter’) and Mass Effect, like usual, remains a cluster of positives and negatives in an already charged environment of misogynistic humdrum. As much as I love this series (indeed, I have over three playthroughs to my name), it pretty much hits every single box on the ol’ Sci-Fi Fuckery list while subverting it rarely and inconsistently. For example, the asari are postulated as the only single gender race…though I sure as hell didn’t see any other genders of any other race aside from quarians and the one-scene wonder rachni queen ’til the last game. These rare glimpses of female aliens? Humanoid and attractive.
Turians, krogan, batarians, salarians, volus, even the literal jellyfish aliens are male-coded. A developer from Mass Effect even had the temerity to explore the ‘unique difficulties’ of designing female aliens in an interview. I quote, “We usually try to avoid the females because what do you do with a female Turian? Do you give her breasts? What do you do? Do you put lipstick on her?” Pretty odd, considering when a female turian design DID surface it was well-done and fit the already established designs of the universe without sacrificing smart visual choices (Bioware really needs to do something about their PR department). While it would be easy to read this as a never-happy-monologue, it’s more a testament to how you can shoot yourself in the foot creating a misogynistic foundation. While the last game had finally started coming around with Eve and Nyreen Kandros, it was too little, too late.
Robots start to get more than a little squicky. That they’re ‘allowed’ to be agender at times (Bastion from Overwatch is referred to with ‘it’ pronouns) would be neat if they weren’t the…well, very rare time this identity is explored. This reinforces the myth that agender people are, at best, strange and, at worst, inhuman. The moment these robots are coded feminine, though? Sexy fembot! The Mechari from Wildstar have the female robots with built-in heels (I’m serious), SHODAN from System Shock is a sci-fi villain staple and Cortana from Halo remains one of the most (in)famous examples. Legion and EDI from Mass Effect are a classic example of this dichotomy, existing on the opposite ends of the robot spectrum — one is presumed male (a being literally comprised of thousands of individuals) and the other, well. Originally was a disembodied feminine voice on a ship before receiving a physical body in the last game. Cue the tits and hourglass figure! The game attempts to lampshade its own nonsense in a few dialogue exchanges with squadmates (“You look like a sexbot instead of a sex toy!”), but acknowledging one’s own tired double-standard does not a proper subversion make.
GLADOS from Portal is a welcome break in more ways than one. She’s funny. She’s terrifying. Her voice acting and dialogue create a stellar combination to single-handedly carry the game’s narrative. When you finally see her, her design is surreal at best and the furthest thing possible from heteronormative male gaze-y slop. While I clutch my very favorite exceptions to my chest — Pharah and Zarya from Overwatch, Sprigg from Chrono Cross, Mozu from Gigantic — the pattern still marches on unimpeded. With so many games released every year, particularly with bountiful character casts, the list of excuses only continues to shrivel. If being told, “Hey, I want the same thing you have!” makes you boil with righteous fury at the greed of uppity minorities, ask yourself: have I looked in a mirror lately?
Male As Default isn’t just an emotional inconvenience — it’s dehumanization. It speaks to our world at large and who, exactly, is seen as fit to be human without fine print. When science-fiction and fantasy titles purport to explore the human condition through grand situations and abstract characters, it feels more than a little disingenuous when these archaic, wretched attitudes aren’t dropped. When Male As Default steamrolls through daily life unhindered, it spells nothing but trouble: for every layer of society. It’s when school tests are redesigned entirely when girls outperformed boys on engineering and science scores, although girls are apparently naturally bad at these subjects. It’s when crash test dummies were designed with a male figure in mind, only to have the very recent female models show higher inclination to injury in standard airbag tests. It’s when women have to visit the clinic multiple times just to get a proper diagnosis because of male doctors’ tendency to downplay their female patients’ pain.
As such? It’s hard to be too impressed when you’re vaguely and not-so-vaguely told your existence will forever waver precariously on a barometer of fuckability. When you’re allowed to exist without constrictions, only to receive a chiding finger wag that it’s an exception and not to be expected. With all the modern discussion about diversity and what it means for the psychology and well-being of marginalized groups, an uncomfortable and oft-silenced part of the conversation is satisfaction: “You’re never happy.” “I thought this is what you wanted.” “This is why you don’t have human rights.” Creatures are one of my favorite things about fantasy and science-fiction, damn it. This dissatisfaction is born out of love. Out of knowing how much better these genres can do and the places they can go.
It’s okay to be dissatisfied — to want to strike the hydra in the heart.
Ashe has written for Ontological Geek and FemHype
Illustrator and writer happily resigned to be forever obsessed with all things fantasy and science-fiction. Trying to make my mark on this world, however small, while I’m still here.