The Effect She Can Have

She has no idea. The effect she can have.

There were a number of things that struck me in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (which I only got around to reading just last month — yeah, I’m behind the curve), but that line had particular resonance. It’s Peeta, Katniss’ fellow tribute, talking to their mentor Haymitch — and the topic is Katniss.

The effect she can have.

The narrative tells us (and shows us) repeatedly that Katniss is not conventionally likeable. She can’t relax for the camera or play nice in the ways girls are expected to. But when Katniss is allowed to be herself . . . .

How many of you have played Dragon Age 2? (This isn’t as much of a non sequitur as it sounds like.) For those who haven’t: the game has an unusual structure, stretching across a decade of in-story time, its segments framed by the narration (or rather, interrogation) of your protagonist’s companion Varric. He’s being interrogated because your character, Hawke, has played a pivotal role in a major conflict — and because Hawke is, as he puts it, “the one person who can help you put it back together.”

Varric’s narration is surprisingly effective. The things he says throughout are shaped by the decisions you make during gameplay — which makes it feel like those decisions really do matter — and then sometimes he slips in allusions to events you haven’t seen yet. (His interrogator says accusingly that Hawke knew what was going to happen, and Varric denies it: “None of us knew. If we had . . . she never would have let [X happen].”) It took me a while, though, to figure out that there was something else going on in my reaction — something beyond appreciation of the clever structural game the writers were playing.

She.

Hawke can be a male or a female character. You pick which one you want at the start of the game, and the conversations (and certain events) are adjusted to suit. Bioware does this in most, maybe all, of their games, and while some people object that the changes aren’t enough — that the female Commander Shepherd or Grey Warden or Hawke is just the male character with a different voice actor and image — I love it, and Varric’s narration made me realize why:

Because it allows you to experience the novelty of a woman being the most important damn person in the world.

Everybody in the frame story of Dragon Age 2 talks about Hawke in the kind of terms used for an epic fantasy hero: a person at the crux of pivotal events, the one whose decisions made or broke the world around them, the only person who can fix it all afterward. In the Mass Effect series, Commander Shepherd is a galactic hero, feared or honored by a dozen alien species. When you play those games, your enemies will go to any lengths to defeat you, and your companions will die to protect you. And if you chose to play as a woman, you hear all the dialogue that’s normally reserved for male heroes . . . but it’s she and her and my god that sounds weird.

And awesome.

. . . and, thanks to the part of me that has internalized sexism, a little embarassing. It feels Mary Sue-ish, having people speak in such monumental terms about this woman. About any woman. I’m used to hearing men referred to that way; dozens of epic fantasy novels and action movies have accustomed me to the notion that a male character can inspire such loyalty in their followers, or scare a room full of people just by walking in. It’s okay, according to that bit of my subconscious, for guys to have that kind of power fantasy. But women should be more realistic.

Screw that, sez the rest of my brain. I have every right to indulge in that kind of dream, via a surrogate of my own gender. And I have every right to want more stories that give it to me.

Which brings me back to Katniss. She is not, as far as I’m concerned, a Mary Sue. She’s a flawed person whose virtues and strengths shine through like fire. We believe in that when it’s the effect he has; the difference is that this time it’s she. It’s the girl, not the boy, who has the internal and external resilience to survive the Hunger Games, who inspires allies and sponsors to devote themselves to helping her.

It shouldn’t feel like a novelty, reading about a female character of that sort. But it still does — and until that changes, it’s going to continue to have an effect on me.

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  1. 1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)

    It is odd but it is also awesome, yes. Bioware has earned my respect that way.

    Dragon Age 1 is a little more traditional and not developed along those lines, but that is a more traditional fantasy kingdom and is bound by those restrictions.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Paul — I think the main difference in DA:O is that the characters spend less time discussing the Warden directly, and also the lack of voice makes gender a less prominent feature of the character. But you can still be the same kind of Big Damn Hero regardless of gender; if memory serves, Sten is the only person to express sexist views to you.

  3. 3. S.L. Knapp

    That’s what struck me about the Bioware games, too. Part of me recoils from the idea that to make a woman heroic you have to make her like a man, but it’s a good (for now) shortcut because men are written like “people” and women are written like “women.” So the male dialogue is, essentially, the “person” dialogue.*

    So it amazed me to play a game where there was no equivocation about a female hero, none of the fluffing and rationalization that surrounds female heroes written as women: no justification for why she has no family, why she’s in the military, why she’s so tough. There’s no need to soften/feminize her, nor does she have to prove that she’s better than the men. In short, female heroes usually have extra steps just to be accepted by the audience as someone in a position a man would be in, no questions asked.

    I think DA2 may have been the best about it, because there were twinges of sexism in Mass Effect that, while believable for a female hero, still made me wince because the game is so good at otherwise not gendering the experience. So getting called a petname, princess, or a b**** is jarring, like hearing a man being disrespected that way. You get used to that level of neutrality– it’s not respect, because there are characters that disrespect you, but it’s like men disrespecting each other.

    *There are important parts of the women’s experience that can/should be addressed as a “person” experience as well, so I don’t mean that they need to be removed. But I don’t think they need to be addressed every time and in every story. Like a lifelong military space-commander. Her story isn’t going to be the same as a man’s, but most of those differences may not come to bear on the story, just like they don’t bear on every last life experience a woman has.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Honestly, I’m at the point where I kind of reject the notion that giving a female character the same dialogue as a male character is equivalent to “making her like a man.” I see very little in Bioware’s writing that is strictly gendered as masculine, and a great deal that is read as masculine because we normally only hear those kinds of things from male characters. But it’s really more, as you term it, “person” dialogue: unmarked by anything specific to either side. It sounds weird mostly because we’re used to seeing female as a marked category, and the lack of those signifiers is startling.

    I do agree that there is a place for stories about specifically female experience, and even more for stories that present the female experience as “universal” in the same way male experience is supposed to be. But there’s also a place for stories in which you just get to be the Most Important Person, without gender being an issue.

  5. 5. Elizabeth Moon

    Many decades ago, someone asked Dorothy L. Sayers how she could write realistic dialogue for the male characters in her Peter Wimsey books–how could she know how Peter talked to his friends, the guys in his club? The assumption was that male talk and female talk were so different–so isolated from one another–that they must be gendered (our term, that didn’t exist then, I think.) Her response was (less pithily) that she wrote them like people…that’s how people talk…and her listener and readers found this amazing, because everyone “knew” that women didn’t talk about business, or work, or the arts, the way men did.

    It’s sad, but understandable, that having a female character speak the same words in the same situation as a male character is still perceived as “off” in some way. And that female characters have to be seen as either “real women” or “acting like males.” (But then we see reviews in which “writers” are men and “women writers” are a separate category.) Women doctors, when being doctors, talk like male doctors: they use the same words, the same tools, the same diagnostic categories. Women engineers, when talking engineering, use the same tools, words, math, etc. Some people still think this is “acting like a man”–but that’s because they don’t accept that women can really be doctors, engineers, chemists, soldiers.

    In fictional cultures (past, present, future) it’s possible to create a society that does not divide the same way we do along gender lines–and where saying the same things in the same situation as males in that situation is not “talking like a man” but talking like a…well, commander, corporate spy, wounded veteran, NCO, corporate CEO, research chemist, etc. What may be different in a woman gunnery sergeant in a mercenary unit from a male of the same pay grade is not what she says in combat or training…but perhaps what she says when she walks in the door and her eight year old waves a report card at her. Or maybe not. For the story, she’s got to sound like a gunny when she’s being a gunny.

  6. 6. Dwayne Russell

    Just a brief thought here — there have been female heroes in science fiction and fantasy works before, haven’t there? Of course the population skews noticeably male, but there have been more than a few women who fit the description you proffer. Buffy Summers. Kathryn Janeway. Ellen Ripley. Sarah Connor. And those are simply some of the most recent high-profile examples in a tradition that finds its roots in Herland. Granted, the nominal protagonists were male, but it’s hard to read “Herland” as a male-oriented work.

    I’d like to offer a supposition here, but feel free to reject it if I’m off the mark. Could it be that what attracts you to these more recent works is that, unlike most of their earlier sisters, Hawke and Shepherd aren’t explicitly noted as women? By which I mean, people don’t define them even partially by their gender. It seems to be all about what they do. Sarah Connor was the mother of the world’s savior, and she had to fight to protect him. Buffy Summers was the “one girl in all the world,” etc, and created specifically to embody girl power. Even Janeway and Ripley had their moments of having their decisions and reactions defined by their gender. Not having ever been female, perhaps I’m not in the best position to judge reactions. But speaking for myself, if the situation were reversed, I think I would find it liberating to have a male hero who was treated as a hero rather than a MALE hero. If that makes sense.

    Of course, Hawke and Shepherd being treated that way is just a side effect of the way the games are programmed. How odd, and how fitting, that video games might be the ones to take those first steps forward.

  7. 7. Dwayne Russell

    All of which, I suppose, is just my way of asking what Elizabeth Moon has already said. Yikes.

    Oh, well. Perhaps this will be a reminder to read the comment thread next time.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Dwayne — But Sarah Connor, as you say, is the mother of the world’s savior. It’s to the credit of the Terminator series that “mother of the savior” is a role that goes beyond simply giving birth to him . . . but when characters talk about the Most Important Person in the World, it’s John Connor, not Sarah, that they’re talking about.

    Ripley, while likewise an awesome character, doesn’t even rise that high in fame. Nobody has the “oh my god, you’re Ellen Ripley; I’ve always wanted to meet you” reaction. Janeway, I can’t speak to; I recognize the name, but never watched Voyager. Ditto-ish for Herland, which I read years ago, but don’t remember well.

    Buffy is the only one you name who falls into the category I’m talking about here: female characters who have the same profile and earth-shaking importance regularly granted to epic male heroes. And I’m certainly not claiming Katniss, Shepherd, or Hawke are the first female characters to get that kind of treatment. Only that I find it striking when they do. You’re right that part of it with those three is the lack of specific gendering; Buffy is an epic hero, and also one whose femininity and/or femaleness is often under discussion. But most of it is the fact that the type is still rare enough to sound different, and kind of surprising.

  9. 9. Dwayne Russell

    A fair point. Generally speaking, women in sci-fi/fantasy who have that earth-shattering importance have traditionally been villains (cf. “She,” and every novel or movie featuring a wicked queen or empress). Apparently I didn’t place your emphasis properly; I thought you were talking more about the hero at large, and less about that particular sub-category of “destined hero,” or whatever one calls it. So thank you for the clarification.

    This is definitely going on my blog for my regular readers to chew on. You know, all one of me. :-)

  10. 10. Marie Brennan

    Dwayne — they don’t have to be destined, exactly, but they do have to be famous and pivotal. (At least, for them to be the kind of thing I’m talking about here. Other kinds of heroes, of both genders, are also cool.) Good point about that kind of female character usually being the villain!

    Elizabeth — sometimes there *are* difference in how men and women talk, even when they’re in the same situation. Japanese shows a fairly high degree of gendering in its speech, as men and women use different grammatical phrasings; I read an article once that discussed the negotiation of how Japanese women spoke in a business context. Some of them adopted masculine markers in their speech, but quite a few kept the feminine markers, because those are perceived as being softer and less aggressive, which helped ameliorate the tension of having women in higher-ranking positions. It isn’t as clear in English, because we don’t gender our language as obviously, but things like rising intonation are associated with women, and that may distinguish a man’s speech from a woman’s, even if they use the same words.

    Having said that, I think a lot of what’s going on here is, as you say, is the reclamation of certain things as being “for people,” rather than “for men.”

  11. 11. Sam Graham

    One of the things I loved about the Mass Effect series was the way in which the player character could seamlessly be male or female, because they’ve done what all-too-often fails to be the case with female heroes: they’ve separated the heroism from the gender, without removing the gender from the character.

    Time and again we see female characters in fiction whose “heroicness” is chained to their “femaleness”, either they’re heroic because they’re female via “feminine” attributes, or heroic in spite of being female.

    Mass Effect instead shows that heroism isn’t about what’s between your legs, it’s about getting the job done, and “getting the job done” can be entirely gender-neutral without neutering the character.

    Ironically, I read this blog a few days ago and while getting my thoughts in order was going to use Paksenarrion as an example, given I’ve just read the first three books of Paladin’s Legacy this week – then I saw Elizabeth Moon commenting above and it seemed a little creepy to use her as an example. (Hi there! Keep up the great work!)

    She is though, a great example of an author who keeps writing strong female characters who’re strong because they’re strong people, and their gender doesn’t have to come into that.

Pingbacks

  1. Vision in Science Fiction, and Other Links « Dwayne Russell's Blog
  2. Sleeps With Monsters: Mass Effect and the Normalisation of the Woman Hero « Books 'n Movies

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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