Beyond the male gaze: A woman’s perspective on flawed female characters

A character from the video game “Fire Emblem: Awakening,” Maribelle, shows how women don’t need to dress a certain way or be “strong female characters” to be valuable. Courtesy: Farley Santos from Flickr

In her essay “Difficult Women: The Importance of Female Characters Who Go Beyond Being Strong,” Ally McLean writes about “the revolutionary act for a woman to be difficult and still worthwhile … to be inconvenient and still be loved.” It is so rare to see such a woman in video games.

Despite the rise of female developers, an increased awareness of the female demographic and greater understanding of female players’ expectations, video games still lack in representing female characters as just themselves — flawed human beings. More often than not, they are portrayed as caricatures who lack realistic faults and are designed to gratify straight men, both within games and real players.

What does an independent and flawed female character look like? To begin, let’s start with some things she is not:

One: She is not a “strong female character.” Remember when that term was everywhere for a hot second? Why don’t you see it around that much anymore?

It’s because a “strong female character” doesn’t break out from patriarchal perspectives in media but rather reinforces them in different ways. Women are meant to be strong despite their gender and “written to be strong, rather than strongly written,” without any room for growth. In a male-dominated context, these ideas reflect male values of power and strength in the guise of a shallow, conventionally attractive woman.

Two: Her appearance does not blatantly cater to straight men. I know it sounds like I’m encroaching into “stupid social justice warrior feminist” territory here, but hear me out.

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As women, our representation in media is indelibly tied to our bodies. We are not acceptable if we are ugly. In video games with specific costumes related to one’s class or role, women are often dressed revealingly and uncomfortably, compared to men. Women are portrayed as shallow and conventionally attractive — the most important qualities we should maintain, above all else.

For example, compare the garb of one male character to a female character in the vampire class of “Bravely Default.” There is absolutely no practical reason for this lack of covering and functionality — it is simply for player consumption.

An independent and flawed female character in a video game can look like many things, but a prime example is Maribelle from “Fire Emblem: Awakening” — a feminine, prim and proper noble. Players are first introduced to Maribelle when she insults a fellow soldier for burping out loud and the player for encouraging him. She is then described as someone who “warms to people slowly … or burns too quickly.”

We can see that many players take the latter to heart — the most recent poll surrounding fan-favorite characters in the game places her at 23rd place, out of 58 characters. But it is her nature and the growth she displays that make her such a realistic, wonderful character.

As “Fire Emblem: Awakening” allows players to witness conversations between characters, we see that Maribelle initially exemplifies what it means to be a jerk. She brutally berates another character, Lon’qu, for his fear of women, an issue he has struggled with for years. She also scolds her son for his use of unsophisticated language and attempts to force him to change his manner of speaking.

Mechanics in the game allow players to continue watching these conversations to see how her relationships unfold. If players are turned off by Maribelle’s haughty, bossy nature, they might choose to use more nicer characters. But if they give her a chance and watch more in-game conversations unfold, she reveals that all she wants to do is help.

Eventually, Maribelle learns Lon’qu can’t recover from his fear immediately and teaches him to heal at his own pace. When she sees the effort her son dedicates to changing his habits, even though he fails spectacularly, she decides to accept him for who he is, despite his flaws.

As I watched Maribelle develop as a character, I learned to accept and appreciate this difficult woman with depth — a flawed woman who shows that she can be better as she learns to communicate with others. I felt that I also deserved a chance to smooth my flaws and better myself.

It also helps that Maribelle doesn’t have a sexualized costume. She’s dressed like the rider she is, pants and all — pretty impressive, considering other female characters in “Fire Emblem: Awakening” are dressed differently.

By dressing functionally, being a pain in the neck and being useful in gameplay, characters like Maribelle show women that we don’t need to be “strong female characters” or dress a certain way to achieve value. Instead, we deserve the time and space to grow and be ourselves, even if that doesn’t make us very popular.

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Nadya Siringo Ringo SC ’21 is from Jakarta, Indonesia. She is relentless in her pursuit of Epic Gamer Moments.

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