When I first pitched the idea for this blog post to my sister she was like “that’s because they are the underdog personified” and that sums it up quite nicely. In a very, very depressing way. The question I am asking is this: Why are resistance leaders so often portrayed as being female, or female and a person of color?
Beware of major SPOILERS for BioShock – Infinite, The Last Of Us, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst and Wolfenstein: The New Collosus.
The headline gives it away, I guess. In this post I will focus on four games that feature a female, black resistance leader and pair them with a white male (or female) counterpart. First, let’s get to know our plucky heroines.
Daisy Fitzroy | BioShock – Infinite
Daisy Fitzroy is the leader of the Vox Populi resistance group in the very white-centric city of Colombia.
Marlene | The Last Of Us
Marlene (no last name) leads the Fireflies, though to call them a resistance movement may be a tad too much. They used to be the government’s antagonists during the outbreak and the subsequent repression, yet rebelling against zombie hordes is kind of pointless.
Rebecca Thane | Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst
Rebecca is the very radical leader of Black November, a resistance group opposing the ruling families of Cascadia.
Grace Walker | Wolfenstein – The New Collosus
Grace is the head of the American Resistance cell in New York City, and she and her posse literally face Nazis.
So, what do all of these women have in common, apart from gender and skin color? Well. Almost all of them face an oppressive or even openly fascist regime. The exception is the dystopian world of The Last Of Us.
A Classic Black And White Setting (Pun Intended)
Before any one of you protests: I will not be touching on the subject of the white savior, because it does not apply in these cases. The problems these fierce women face are not – with the exception of Daisy Fitzroy – race-related.
The worlds these ladies operate in are dominated by fascist or otherwise oppresive ideas, meaning what counts is what the regime wants, nothing else. Be it the very openly racist city-state of Columbia in BioShock – Infinite, the classist/ultra-capitalistic world of Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst or the Wolfenstein-series. The canvas, so to speak, is an extreme black and white.
Here are the bad guys, who are really, really bad, and here are the good guys, pardon, the hero, who also has to deal with some kind of resistance. They might be allies, they may be foes.
Women As Victims
As I mentioned in the beginning, in Western society’s pop culture, a female POC is perceived as the ultimate underdog, many times. Often the victim of abuse, crime and/or poverty, they have nothing to lose and stand to gain everything. Which is why they often go to extreme lenghts to fight for their rights.
Yes. I am generalizing here.
And I dareay that, from a European perspective, which is my perspective, the impact of the image hits differently than, say, from a US-American perspective. Mine is a pretty superficial view, too. And I am aware of European colonialism, believe me.
Looking at myself, when playing games, I am invested in the characters. And these four are undeniably strong women, leaders, and heroes in their own right, after all. So, yes, I do see the trope. But it does not register as being offensive. That being said,I am more offended by the lack of female leads in general…
Speaking of leads.
A Pattern Of Violence
In the case of BioShock – Infinite Daisy, the genius and brutal leader of the Vox Populi, will be pitted against the game’s hero/villain Booker DeWitt. She is capable of extreme violence. Since BioShock – Infinite really is not your run-of-the-mill video game I will just let that stand. But you will soon see a trend emerging.
The Last Of Us also is a very emotional piece of art and, again, there is no black and white here. Both Joel and Ellie, the heroes of the game, are white, but while Ellie is an idealist willing to do what it takes, Joel cannot accept any more personal sacrifices. When Marlene insists on sacrificing Ellie for the good of mankind, he kills Marlene her.
When we first meet Rebecca Thane in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, her whatever-it-takes-attitude is pitted against Noah Kekai’s more cautious nature. Noah is not the hero, but the heroine’s mentor. He leads one of the Runners’ cabals, making him an outlaw as much as Rebecca. The game’s true heroine, Faith Connors, will be confronted with both personalities. But, since she is female and a POC herself, I did compare Rebecca to Noah instead. While Noah, too, is prepared to protect his family, he would rather choose to bargain than opt for violence. Rebecca sees the bigger picture and has no qualms when it comes to using violence.
See the pattern yet?
Finally, Wolfenstein‘s Grace Walker – my favorite by far – is an extremely progressive woman for her time, a smart and decisive leader. Her counterpart is the conflicted father-to-be B.J. Blazkowicz, who may look like the posterboy of the Nazi-regime, but is one of their fiercest enemies. Grace is one of the best NPCs I have ever come across and in many ways stronger than B.J. She, too, is willing to go to extreme lengths to reach her goal.
So. All four of these women act against society’s expectations. They are not opting for peace or negotiations, and they are far from merciful. It is what I suppose is meant to motivate us, as the player, to distrust them, despite their seemingly ulterior motives. You are fighting a fascist or oppressive regime? Yay! You are planning to kill that evil guy’s child? Boooh! So, while we may initially symphazise with the ladies’ cause, their actions will prevent us from fully committing to them.
What to take away from this? It is hard to not use stereotypes when trying to write an engaging story. Maybe it needs to be black and white. But, just maybe, there are other ways to tell a story without falling for these lame tropes.
Until then, keep on playing!