Gender roles in RPG’s, or: bikini witches and action heroes

The above video illustrates one of my main gripes with many games, and sadly also with many RPG’s. I know that games are a place to give shape to our own dreams, and that sexualized versions of the genders are part of that, but…must it be done in such an obnoxious way? Is there no one who dares to challenge the stereotyping of genders, putting them into roles we thought we had escaped when we gave women the right to leave the kitchen?

Or am I just over-reacting? Read on to find out!

See, I’m not gender-blind or something. Just as I don’t claim to be entirely colour-blind (because, let’s face it, no one really is), I tend to assign certain roles to males and females quite regular. It’s a cultural thing, though: if you grew up in the Western world, it doesn’t matter how liberal your parents were, you’ve been indoctrinated with gender-specific ideas. There’s still a large amount of people my age who think that it’s a woman’s task to raise the children, while the man has to go out hunting for cash and promotions. We might think that the emancipation of women has freed of us such boxed thinking, but we’re still the slave of culture-defined gender roles we thought were long gone. So why cling to them in our role-playing games?

Don’t get me wrong, most games give identical roles to both genders, at least from a technical point-of-view. In Dungeons & Dragons, both male and female characters can be fighters or sorcerers. In Exalted, the divine spark that grants Exaltation is not sexist. What is however sexist, is the portrayal of the genders in such games. This is somewhat linked to my problem with not showing ugly characters. No matter the game, there are certain visual aspects that are used to show idealised, highly unrealistic versions of both genders. Alright, let’s ignore the unrealistic part, since we’re playing a fantasy game, but let’s focus on the idealised thingy. Have you ever opened an RPG book and were greeted by a male specimen that didn’t look like adventuring includes steroid therapies? Have you ever seen a woman in one of those books that you wouldn’t tap? I can only name a few publications that showed average or even ugly characters, and that’s really disappointing.

Also, even though both genders are free to pick any role in most rule sets, it seems like video games have gotten us used to a certain gender division when it comes to classes / roles in a party. Healers tend to be female, while barbarians and other warrior archetypes seem to be more reserved for the male side of the spectrum. I can’t say from my own experience that this is also the case in tabletop RPG’s, but I could imagine that our cultural ideas of masculine and feminine jobs flow over into our gaming behaviour.

Fortunately, there are always examples that break the mold. White Wolf’s Exalted has multiple female characters that take on male roles, and vice-versa. While still somewhat sexualized, characters like Kajeha Lef and Lillith show that more masculine traits are a perfect fit for the ladies. An even better example is George R.R. Martin’s Brienne (pictured above), who is not sexualized and fulfills are really male role (especially in the world of Westeros). To me, Brienne is the kind of character we should see more often: a person that focuses on their goals and ambitions, while not caring much about how she is “so not” female or ladylike.

Look, I know I can’t change our view on gender roles with one blog post, but I would be happy if we could leave some of those bikini witches on Gender Issues Island and let Arnie play the action hero. Here’s to hoping that, as we progressively steer away from a caste-like assignment of roles based on gender, our games will reflect that cultural shift…or even speed it along.

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