How Video Games Are Empowering Women Where Feminists Aren’t

I’m not a fan of empowering women. To me, the phrase is painfully condescending. The person empowering women never seems to think too highly of them. They assume women don’t...
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I’m not a fan of empowering women. To me, the phrase is painfully condescending. The person empowering women never seems to think too highly of them. They assume women don’t know what they want and need someone ready with a squeaky toy to ’empower’ them. Usually, I tune out this nonsense, but sometimes it gets to me. Namely, when people cite video games as anti-woman. Let me make this clear: video games are not anti-woman. That’s like saying books are anti-woman.

Games are naturally empowering (except when they deliberately aren’t). They don’t specifically target one gender to empower. In fact, they’re potentially good for anyone of any race or gender. Thinking about it, there are actually ways that games are empowering women. Women that perhaps these female-centric movements often do not consider. One key difference I see is that a game does not treat you like a victim. Bad things happen and you move past them. Unlike what is taught in intersectional feminism there is no oppressive force preventing you from being the best that you can be. Games give us a sense of agency and command over our own destiny. They teach us that as long as we keep trying we will improve and eventually win.

Sure, I have my petty snipes about women in games too. I’d love to see more done with the female role. Yet, I’d never deny that games are empowering women. So let’s try and put this issue to bed, shall we?

Empowering Women We Often Forget

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Sexually attractive women often aren’t seen as a vulnerable group. We equate sex with power, so obviously, a sexy person is empowered. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Girls who dress provocatively are often thought of as less competent at the workplace. A large bust or an athletic build is often an invitation for criticism for trying hard. Even plain old thinness is demonised. Apparently, only dogs go for bones, or so I’ve been told. When people talk about empowering women, these aren’t the one’s they’re talking about.

These problems are absent in video games. Being sexually attractive or dressing skimpily is never a bad thing. Having huge breasts does not make you a slut. Tifa Lockhart from Final Fantasy VII is one of my favourite women in gaming. She is also one of the bustiest characters you’ll see outside of anime. This is never portrayed in a negative light in-game. I struggle to think if her bust size is mentioned at all. Sure the fandom has fun with it. Yet, in the context of the game, she’s just another human. She’s characterised by her kindness which contrasts with the common idea that beauty equals bitchiness. Tifa is shown to be a competent and loyal mother figure while also being badass and gorgeous.

Games Show A Woman’s Agency

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Often being sexually attractive or provocative comes hand in hand with the idea of being a slut. Yet, in games, women call the shots. Even in games where you can date or sleep with women you still have to earn this privilege. Often having to make her fall in love with you or accomplish mammoth tasks for her. These girls don’t settle.

There are plenty of games where you simply don’t get the girl too. In Mario, you can save Peach all day every day but you are only ever going to get a cake and never a piece of her pie. This is a message that we hear a lot, but video games have been passively saying this for years. You can bend over backwards for a girl, but she doesn’t have to pay you back with her body. You have to work hard for a girl’s affections. Both messages are present in hundreds of games and they haven’t been shoved down our throats. I find the way video games deliver this message to be vastly superior to shouting “no means no”. Another phrase that is incredibly patronising.

Empowering Women With Weaponized Sexuality

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One thing I love about sexy video game characters is they aren’t afraid to use their body. It’s almost a taboo subject to talk about. The fact that the female sexuality is a potent tool for getting what you want. Manipulation probably isn’t the best trait to associate with women. Yet, it is hardly far-fetched. Throughout history, the female allure has been used for multiple purposes. Honeys have been extracting information for centuries. Using their genetic advantages to bend men to their will with a softer touch. How about the Japanese Kunoichi? The female ninjas who hid in plain sight and used their bodies to loosen the lips of their targets. When it comes to empowering women at the expense of men one can make an argument for the weaponized sexuality of women.

It’s a casual reminder that women do have power. It isn’t something most are keen to admit to because yeah it is sly and improper. It can also be intimidating. If I think of Rosso the Crimson from Dirge of Cerberus I think of her as a very sexually intimidating character. Everything about her is dripping with seduction but she is filled with animalistic hatred. Characters who own their sexual power and use it to dominate their opponents are icons of female empowerment. I can understand why from an equality standpoint this can be seen as bad. If looking at purely from the perspective of empowering women, however, it’s hard to argue against it.

 Games Love Women Who Act Like Mothers

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Mothers aren’t something we see a lot in games. Like in Disney movies they have this awful habit of dying before we meet them. That said, the role of mother is not forgotten. Refreshingly, motherhood, biological or not is shown very positively. It’s something I really respect when I see it in games. A lot of the time when a girl admits to wanting to settle down and start a family people call it a lack of ambition. I enjoy anything that counteracts that message. Whether people like it or not a woman is the one in control of the baby oven and there is nothing wrong with being a mother.

Not only that but games also thoroughly establish that mothering isn’t the end of a woman’s life. Even Bayonetta is thrust into a mothering role though she is unwilling, and she rocks it. In the game This War of Mine characters usually get something they’re good at. Fast runners, Good cooks, and even good with kids. It is clear that games rank mothering as a valid and important skill. It seems that when developers want you to like a female character they’ll show her as a capable mother.

Women Are Gods Among Men

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When a woman isn’t a protagonist this odd thing happens, she becomes a god. Far out of the player’s reach is this divine being, this woman, who is magical and wise. She can be a literal god, like Enna Kros (World of Final Fantasy), a princess like Zelda, or some other somewhat divine entity like the sisters in The Void. If you want to get really mundane we could even attribute this to Mary from Silent Hill 2. They’re just this woman on a pedestal the hero will do anything for. This can be out of unconditional love or loyalty or both. She may act as a mentor, a mother, a love interest or even a ghost. Whoever they are they are celebrated or worshipped.

As far as empowering women goes, I don’t think you can get much higher than literal god. They’re usually benign though JENOVA is an example of an evil alternative. Usually, I find the female God is the good one whereas the male is the bad one. Like Chaos and Cosmos from Dissidia or again the Sisters and the Brothers from The Void. You’d be surprised how often winning the love or approval of a woman is the motivation of the protagonist.

Women Are Worth Protecting

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Women are always worth protecting in games. Men die here there and everywhere. When a woman dies that’s different, it often has a lot more significance. This contributes to the shortage of female villains that die on screen. Try and think of the last game that let you kill a woman. The only games that spring into my head are open world games where everyone is fair game. In most games, the guy will die a hundred times to save the girl.

It really shows how highly games think of women. They put them on this tremendous pedestal and make them the meaning of these epic journeys. The heroes reason to be, their reason to quest even. Even though this is positive in regards to empowering women it’s also sad. Games are reinforcing the idea that a man should be willing to die for a woman. That has a lot of weight to it. Historically, men are the protectors, but I do not think they should be disposable.

Truly Equal

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Games present a level playing field for men and women. Does one ever consider Chun-Li less capable than Ryu? No of course not because they are coded to have an equal chance at winning. In the real world, men have a physical advantage for gaining muscle mass and such. In-game, a Japanese high schooler can slap a full grown man into submission. You are never really given reason to think of a female avatar as less powerful than a male one. If that’s what you crave then games have you covered.

In the end none of this matters. The protagonist’s gender, humanity, colour, it’s all irrelevant. Games are a blissful escape from reality and there are billions to choose from. Chances are if you look for problems in gaming you’ll find them. I’d sooner spend my energy finding a place to call my own. The next time someone tells you games are anti-woman show them this when you’re done laughing. Games empower us all, as long as we let them.

I'm the crazy English teacher who all the students love because they don't know they're learning anything. I look at gaming as a means of uniting generations and people as well as a tool for teaching and soothing. I often boast that every major success in my life is the result of my gaming addiction. It is my hope that in future the term 'Gamer' will not be derogatory outside the walls of our community.
  • m0r1arty

    A very refreshing take on why gaming is the best level playing field we have available to us.

    It’s all meant to be fun, any messages a developer can attach to that are welcome but remember to focus on the fun 🙂

  • Slartibartfast

    We need more voices like your’s.

    • Everyone digs that British accent. In all seriousness, though thank you. I’m glad you liked the piece!

  • Sonya Winter

    Some very good points here. But many of the roles of female characters in games that the article cites are the very views the Victorians used to keep women out of anywhere but the home. Honoring motherhood, dying to protect women, women as goddesses beyond the reach of lowly men…this is the picture Victorian society offered of the Angel of the Hearth. The idea that a woman’s superpowers are Nurturing and Being Above Nasty Male Things keep her out of politics, business, education, entertainment, sports, war, and even much of religion. In short, many of the writer’s points in support of the image of women in games suggest that game writers’ view of women is lagging behind the rest of society’s.

    • Think of it like this. The women in these games have these traits, but at the same time do everything a man can. They fight, they die, they mother. Personally, I believe men and women are different from each other and that will always be apart of our identity. I can only shower my appreciation on games that show those differences as strengths. I can think of very few women in video games who are Angels of the Hearth, perhaps Aerith’s mother from Final Fantasy VII… though i guess she was more undercover. Either way, I don’t think these traits are inherently negative, it is merely how they are applied to society.

      • Sonya Winter

        They’re definitely not negative traits. The problem only arises when they’re shown as so universal among admirable women that they become 1. the only traits women are admired for, and 2. traits exclusive to women. Neither of those outcomes is good for society as a whole.

        I’m not saying the portrayal of women in games is limited to mother/nurturer/goddess/pedestal resident. Only that citing incidents of those portrayals doesn’t really demonstrate that female game characters are representing more than old stereotypes of femininity.

        (It’s true, though, that you and I are seeing the portrayals of women from different angles. I DON’T believe that there’s as much difference between women and men as some people claim. Neuroscience hasn’t been able to prove the existence of “the female brain,” for instance–that there are fundamental differences between male and female neurological structure or activity. So I tend to expect women to act like humans, and men to act like humans. As a great liquor ad caption once said, “Men are from Earth. Women are from Earth. Get over it.” It made me laugh.)

        • Ah, well I think since we are coming at this from very different angles we probably wont agree. I’m not really talking about a male or female brain you see I’m talking about the experience that comes with your gender. There are a lot of social elements that tie into making who you are not to mention physical things and expectation. Women have the equipment to look after babies, hips naturally ready to balance a bubba, breasts to feed them. That’s something no man no matter how capable has access to and it is a difference we should be proud of I think. Personally, I have a deep respect for women who can mother. My own mother and I do not get along all that well so I see the contrast very clearly. Honestly, I can’t think of a more important job in the entire world than being responsible for a brand new life.

          I would also like to add that for this piece I picked these traits because they are pretty feminine in nature. These are not the only traits showcased in games. Tifa for example is also a capable fighter, she can take care of herself. Aerith acts as an honourable sacrifice and actually dies on screen. Lightning (FFXIII) knocks poor Snow on his back several times and is just as stoic as any male character. Yuna spends the whole of X-2 being the one chasing her love and putting him on a pedestal. You can probably tell I’m quite the Final Fantasy fan haha, but still. The point I want to get across is that these women aren’t at all limited. They are equal to their male counterparts. I also think these traditional elements of femininity deserve praise too. Feminists are quick to empower people going against the grain as it were, but people with traditional values are often looked down upon. Personally, I have a certain amount of distaste for that so i appreciate when games convey positive messages about those traditional values.

  • Elvick

    Makes me think of Barbie and the people who find her “problematic”. When I was growing up, as a gay boy, Barbie was advertised to do anything she wanted to do. She was capable of anything, she could be a stewardess [yes that horrible word!], a doctor, a fashion designer, she could fight alongside G.I. Joe against Dinosaurs. The perfect vessel for your imagination, with changeable attire and hair to stylize! But with adulthood, comes overthinking the simplest of things.

    A doll that represents imagination and true freedom, is now pushing “false ideas of beauty” and that girls only care about clothes and pink. That’s not the Barbie I snuck into my sister’s room to play with. And it sure isn’t Barbie today. People are looking to blame Barbie (in this context female characters) for their own insecurities, and act like she causes them in little girls. Rather than look internally at the root cause(s) of their own problems. Which is far more difficult… but that provides an actual solution to the problem. Little girls (or boys~) are not looking at Barbie for what they “should look like”. They’re just having fun. Same thing with video games. Although more story oriented ones do lend to more than just fun.

    Video games aren’t why you feel bad. And changing them isn’t going to make you feel better, you’ll always find a problem with them, because the problem was never them to begin with. As you change games to fix your own problems, you will remain the same, so games will always have something wrong with them; because you’re still not “better”. You can’t fix yourself by fixing something else.

    “The only person I can control is me.” Video games can’t make you empower yourself, only you can prevent forest fires empower yourself. You control how you view the world, and how things affect you. It’s why “Power Fantasy vs Objectification” is just an issue of perception. There is no real difference other than how you look at it. Some think Bayonetta is empowering, and a power fantasy. Others think she’s objectified and sexist. Bayonetta is Bayonetta either way. Stop waiting for the world to fix you. Fix yourself. Easier said than done, but worth the work. And it’s far easier to change yourself than the entire world (gaming industry).

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