The Quest for Characters Like Me

I’ve recently read a lot of articles, tweets, and so on about girls not finding female characters in games, movies, etc. I have a geeky daughter, and I’m painfully aware of how common this is. And while she’s not necessarily opposed to playing male characters, she definitely prefers to play a female character when possible.

Avengers Tshirt

Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, even Hawkeye. Where’s Black Widow?

My girl loves The Avengers—the movie itself offers characters like Black Widow and Maria Hill, both of whom she likes. The merchandise, however, rarely includes Black Widow unless there are at least 5 characters depicted, and she’s usually off to the side or sort of in the background. Absolutely nothing I’ve found features her, unlike Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and to a lesser extent the Hulk. (Admittedly, Hawkeye is equally excluded—one could argue that you don’t get your own notebook or water bottle until you’ve also gotten your own movie…but that just points out another problem.) You can only get the Black Widow Lego minifig as part of a $70 set.

Speaking of Lego, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are pretty big in our house, too. I know these settings are sorely lacking in female characters. But Lego really couldn’t have included Eowyn in The Battle of Helm’s Deep? Or included Arwen and her horse with Attack on Weathertop?

These oversights in other media make the Skylanders games stand out all the more because of their inclusion of multiple female characters. Skylanders has kind of taken over our house, but in general I’m happy to let it happen.

Skylanders-figures

Stealth Elf and Tree Rex

A quick overview: Skylanders (Spyro’s Adventure and Giants) is a line of video games that uses physical collectible figures. Part of what’s so cool is that each figure stores its own information, so you can take your figure to a friend’s house and still play your own specialized character on your friend’s game. (Here’s a better detailed and more technical explanation.) There are also several app games where you can enter the codes from each figure and play those characters on your iPad or whatever.

Caveat: I have to admit that my experience with the game is mostly second hand—I talk with my kids about it, together we choose new characters to buy, I’m in the room when they play but not actually paying a ton of attention. (Although I am totally addicted to one of the app games, which uses the same characters—when the kids buy a new figure, I get a new character in my game! Truly, this is brilliant marketing.) I haven’t given this intense academic study and my observations are primarily based on the experiences of my family and the families of some friends.

It’s true that significantly less than half of the characters are female (only about 25%), and it’s possible, even probable, that if I really examined some of the portrayals, I’d find something problematic (although I bet I’d also find male stereotypes that would bother me). But the thing that I love is that there are a variety of female characters—even at 25%, that means about 10 individual and differentiated female characters. These aren’t things you have to unlock; if you want, you can start the game with an all-female party because you purchase the figures for the characters you want to play.

Whirlwind - a unicorn dragon

Whirlwind – a unicorn dragon

These aren’t just token females, throwing a pink sparkly bone to some girl who might want to play. These are cool and unique characters. There are purple male characters and blue female characters. Yes, one of them is a unicorn dragon hybrid who shoots lethal rainbows out of her horn, but that’s awesome, too. The female characters don’t have to give up feminine characteristics in order to be effective. When we were first getting acquainted with the game, several male clerks in various game stores mentioned that Stealth Elf was the best character from the first series, meaning that the coveted character is a female ninja.

Sonic Boom with one of her babies

Sonic Boom with one of her babies

My son really wanted Sonic Boom who lays eggs that hatch into baby dragons who are cursed to go back into their eggs rather than growing up. Aside from the egg thing, there’s nothing about Sonic Boom that screams female—she’s just an armored dragon. So my boy at first thought it was a male dragon who laid eggs, which I think is also kind of cool. Dads in his world are usually quite involved with their kids, so why shouldn’t dads in a fantasy world also lay eggs? (Yes, for my son, the default gender of a character is male, just like the default gender for my daughter is female. Makes sense to me.)

My daughter is mixed on video games—she plays a bit, but it’s not a major interest for her. But Skylanders, with cool female characters and collectible figures, has grabbed her attention. No, she doesn’t play it as much as her brother does. But she does play it and she does spend her allowance on new figures. A friend of mine is the mother of three boys. She doesn’t play a lot of video games, but when she saw the female Skylanders, she bought herself a figure and she plays with her sons.

Sprocket ended up under our Christmas tree, too. How could we resist?

Sprocket ended up under our Christmas tree, too.
How could we resist?

During the holidays, Skylanders Giants descended on many houses. Over at our friends’ house, they showed us three of their new Skylanders—my friend got Chill, the winter warrior. Her husband got Sprocket who is armed with a huge wrench. And their middle son got the gem dragon Flashwing. It just so happens that all three of those characters are female. It wasn’t planned that way—they just chose the cool characters that most appealed to them.

I have way too much fun with this game.

I have WAY too much fun with this game.

I don’t play the video game, but I’m totally addicted to Lost Islands, a Skylanders resource management game for the iPad. The title page for that game features Stealth Elf and Flashwing prominently. There are bios for each of the Skylanders, which my daughter has devoured and memorized. These provide motivations for all the characters, which engages her imagination and helps draw her into the world of the video game. She particularly likes that Sprocket is searching for her missing uncle—I think it reminds her of the plots of some of the books she’s enjoyed.

I’m not going to say that Skylanders is perfect—there are some weird gender dynamics between two NPCs (the buffoon pilot routinely and ineffectually hits on the female combat instructor)—but in a world where it seems particularly hard for geeky girls to find characters they can identify with, it really stands out as an example of where I hope we’re headed. And based on my personal experiences, characters being female has in no way discouraged male players from buying and playing them, and in several instances it has drawn in female players who otherwise might have ignored the game.

Sounds like an all around win to me.

(For more on why I think gender in video games matters even though I don’t play them and for a link to a great article on the topic, see the previous post.)

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