I don’t see your problem: Sexism, World of Warcraft and Geekery

Pewter is a geek of Virtual Worlds and Imagined Spaces. By reading far too many books and keeping some excellent company she has managed to become somewhat opinionated. She blogs at MentalShaman while she treads her pathway through Geek Feminism and Intersectionality, and discusses World of Warcraft. She also maintains TotemSpot , and participates in several female-centric Warcraft Communities.

This post originally appeared at MentalShaman.

N.B: This article has received some small edits since original publication, in order to add examples contributed via email or comment. I have also done a few edits to clarify certain points and correct typos etc. Many thanks to everyone who has commented. This article also appeared here.

When I log in to WoW, I don’t get discriminated against because I am a woman. My opinions are valued by my fellow officers and guild members (and a wider community of people on my realm.) This blog is my voice, and I have power over the comments. I am surrounded by intelligent, clever, eloquent people in the communities I have chosen to interact with. I have been educated by their words, by their examples. If I want I can exist in an online bubble and chose to believe that this way of thinking is mainstream.

And then I poke my head out of my friendly little bubble, and the magnitude of crap out there makes me wibble and want to hide away again. It’s not FUN calling out your friends on ableist/sexist/racist bullshit, especially when they held your hands through multiple dramas at University, and still persist in wanting to hang out with you after you’ve spent a morning-after dry-heaving into a toilet.

It’s not just about a statue (or bunny ears, or skimpy armor)

Not long ago there was some minor kerfuffle over the lack of a female character in the ‘Victory’ statue. This is the statue in the centre of Dalaran that commemtorates the ‘victory’ over Arthas. A lot of people (not just men) dismissed this as being over-sensitive and a bit pointless, and the story didn’t even really make it into the blogosphere. Even I didn’t bother with it.

What makes me upset about relatively small things like this is not the individual small problem, but the overall picture. Even the bitch jokes and dialogue, although they seem isolated, make up a much bigger picture that is produced by a development team that is predominatly white and male. Many women in the geek industries will adopt the mainstream geek culture in order to fit in – just as in mainstream society we accept that showing cellulite is inappropriate, and that women should wear bras because otherwise men might be distracted by nipples.

So let us have a look at context

Please bear in mind that this is not a complete list, and I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with everything on the list. Some of the examples given deserve a more completely analysis than I am able to give here, and it is very easy to disagree with or dismiss most of these problematic things on an individual basis. The specifics aren’t the point, and the intent of Blizzard is not the point, it is the trends produced by the male privilege that I am calling out here, not the game itself.

So, we have the various skimpy outfits. The quite frankly random cleavage that happens to a lot of generic dungeon sets (that gear set that covers EVERYTHING but the women’s eyes and their cleavage, for example?) A lot of women in the game do enjoy dressing up in outfits that reveal the curves of their female toon. Others just want their plate armor to cover their soft organs. We have the Queen of the Red Dragons dressed in the typical bikini outfight – surely a more regal outfit could be found for her? (A part of me feels that dragons wouldn’t clothe themselves at all in human form, but male dragons don’t show any inclination towards nekkidness.)

Moving on from skimpy outfits, we head to the language applied to anything that is sexy or shows flesh – slut-shaming, body hate. There is a difference between criticising the ubiquity of the in-game and fan art that has plate bikini and is catering to the male gaze, and directing hateful language towards the female body, or a woman who chooses to wear a short skirt. Unfortunately the two tend to go hand in hand.

Three female character models from World of Warcraft

While we’re on skimpy armour, lets take a look at Ysera, Alextrazsa and Sylvanas. Now, I have no problems with characters sharing models – it happens a lot in WoW. Even though (as pointed out by Dee of Azeroth Me many of the unique male characters are topless, there isn’t the same sexualisation of those characters going on. I love all three models from the shoulder up. One model (Sylvanas maybe) with the skimpy bikini top would have been fine. I can even reconcile Alextrazsa as supposedly the ‘embodiment of fertility’, but did they really need to have the same faces and armour? Maybe Alextrasza and Ysera share a wardrobe, but very few other dragons show such an interest in standing around naked.

Also Sylvanas needs to have a little extra rot going on. What with the undead thing.

Next we have the two major female characters being excised from the Lich King defeat story. Sylvanas and Jaina are there all the way through WCIII, Vanilla, TBC and Lower Spire, and yet when it comes to the Lich King fight they are mysteriously absent. There is no absolution for their interactions with Arthas, in this expansion.

Then those two major female characters are the embodiment of classic ‘female leader’ tropes, with Sylvanas being patently ‘up to no good’ and Jaina succumbing to female ‘weakness’ at every turn. Actually, take a look at this fabulous breakdown of female characters in WoW, with percentages and character archetypes. I’m not drawing any conclusions from it yet, but it makes for an interesting read and break down. One thing I do draw from it is the ‘Maiden/Lover’, ‘Mother’, and ‘Hag/Shrew’ breakdowns, which I think require some deeper analysis than I am able to give here.

ADDITION: It was noted by a commenter that the female leaders seem to be associated with rebellions and subversiveness rather than ‘rightful’ leadership. Something worth exploring further.

And Tyrande? Yes she can sit quietly in Darnassus and glare meaningfully over at at Fandrel. She doesn’t need to do anything. (Note that I haven’t explored Tyrande’s role in Cataclysm yet, but for a lot of the books her storyline is defined and couched within the way it impacts upon the two men in her life.)

Then we have the ‘habit’ of Jaina-hate, calling her a whore or a slut because she dared to have relationships with more than one man. This is not of Blizzard’s making, but it is a perfect example of sexist attitudes prevalent within the player base (and certainly not limited to men.) She needs a storyline makeover that doesn’t involve her ‘relationships’ with men. This attitude towards Jaina is prevalent in many, many WoW Communities, even in female-friendly spaces.

Then Maiev Shadowsong who, by the end, only had purpose to exist because of a man, a story thread explicitly acknowledge in the Illidan fight. Not to mention that most female ‘bosses’ will play second fiddle to a leading male character. Of 2 female ‘end bosses’, Vashj still plays second fiddle to Illidan and Onyxia (besides being dead) is arguabley outranked by Nefarion. For each expansion, the ultimate end-game entities have been male – Kel’thuzud, Illidan/Archimonde, and Lich King. Cataclysm won’t change this, but I am looking forward to a future expansion featuring Azshara (although common sense tells me that this is likely to be an expansion involving Sargeras.)

No female soldier in the victory statue. Despite there being male and female guard npcs all over the game, they are absent from this representation of victory. Not just the statue, the fact of being shouted down for having the temerity to talk about it. While, again, this feels very minor and unimportant, when viewed in a wider context it is upsetting.

And come to that, enter groups of NPCs with no female model at all – ogres, kobolds, furbolgs, Gronn. Although there could be a comment made for the idea that these are races which simply lack the sexual dimorphism of the playable races, or lack a true gender binary/human style reproductive system. Dragons would be an example of this, although they have very gendered human forms, there is always Chromie/Chromuru. Wolfshead cites this as an example of sexism against men as the ‘villains’, which would hold more weight if we had more women as ‘heros’ in the first place. But no, all the females, good and bad, play second fiddle to male protagonists. Only minor, insignificant NPCs get to pass the Bechdel test in WoW (I am unsure if this applies to any of the books though.)

I mean seriously, the Bechdel test? It is fucking scary how few games and movies pass this.

1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

Numerous ‘jokes’ in the beta that play off gendered insults and stereotypes, and one joke that is either about consensual bondage/goblin greed or about rape, depending on whether you hear ‘he’ or ‘she’. I’m not saying that some of the current jokes are any better, but there are ways do innuendo jokes without buying into the more degrading aspects of being compared a female dog, or a golddigger. Not only that, but it is male designers putting these jokes in the mouths of female player characters – not the same thing as the word being reclaimed and used by women at all.

A lot of the female jokes in general will play off gender and sexuality, while male jokes will be just that – jokes with no gender related component. The female human jokes even gently poke fun at gender stereotypes (rather than merely perpetuating them) with “So me and my friends swap clothes all the time, we’re all the same size!”

The new horde leader calling Sylvanas a ‘Bitch‘. While it can be ‘explained away’ by Blizzard wanting to represent Garrosh as the sort of person who says that, the fact is that they are legitimising the use of the language. On the scale of insults towards women it is relatively low (and also cue commentators telling me they’re female and they’re okay with it) but it is a largely unnecessary step, and it comes out of the mouth of a character that the audience is apparently supposed to sympathise with.

A questline in the Goblin starter zone where the player character has to murder their cheating ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, and rip out their still-beating hearts. Again, the sexism of this is debatable (the male/female npcs involved in this are called Candy and Chip En Dale) but it’s not sitting pretty with the entire picture.

The fact that, of all the Warrior spell and talent icons, Chas points out to us that the only recognisably female Icon is for a talent called Rude Interruption. Hmm what about the other classes? Only looking at the Cataclysm tree for these talents, and not at the spell icons.

So the ‘female icons’ for our talents, and most of them are healing/nurture related, with Hunters and Warriors at the exception to that, while 4 other classes have no female representation at all in their talent trees. As with all my other examples, this is a small thing and easily ignored in isolation (because really, icons?) When taken in context with larger trends it is disheartening. (And please don’t tell me I’m overreacting – I write a lot, it’s what I do.) I will say that Blizzard has put a lot of gender neutral icons, and I sincerely doubt this was intentional on the part of the artists, but the majority of humanoid icons are very masculine.

It’s Playboy Bunny Ears being distributed as part of Noblegarden, a holiday otherwise associated with Easter, and an achievement that requires you to put the ears on female characters of level 18 of each racea clear reference to the general ‘age of consent’ in many parts of the western world. The ears themselves are pretty innocuous. As a sex-positive person I do not hold that all pornography is degrading to women, but I find the Playboy brand extremely problematic and unwelcome in the WoW universe, especially coming with the ‘level 18′ reference. I’m not offended by the achievement so much as worried by it.

It’s the character models all adhering to the traditional hourglass figure, even though the actual body type range is fairly broad, and yet not even modelling the boob animations with any kind of support. Playing my favourite dwarf characters always make me wince when they run – even in plate the boobs wobble around unconstrained! There is a positive angle to this, in that Blizzard changed the models of the women in game in response to the complaints of female players. As someone who adored the old female troll model, this makes me sad, but it is positive that Blizzard responded to the female voices rather than dismissing them.

And it’s all the shit that many women have to experience in game, from the player base, from internalised sexism, from other women.

“Why does everyone automatically assume I know tailoring and cooking?” is female human joke phrase repeated by a lot of female players – except that it instead refers to playing a healer, or using feminine wiles to get things from guild mates, or needing protection and help from male friends.

So, -isms and Geekery, Pewter?

Oh yes, I was talking about it in a wider context. For reasons of space I haven’t gone into detail of why something is or isn’t sexist in the list above, I’ve merely attempted to highlight an awful lot of things which add up to some problematic view points. I don’t think Azeroth as a world is anti-feminist at all, but a lot of what the designers put in game clearly come from a particular, privileged position. Even raising your voice to speak out about such things brings in silencing accusations of “Reverse Sexism” and ‘being overly politically correct’ (and even blaming the sexism on the female player for presenting themselves as female within game. What about, yanno, blaming the man for being sexist towards her?)

Wanting to change these things, wanting to talk about them, doesn’t mean sanitising the World of Warcraft. Far from it – it means enrichment, and moving beyond the tired old privileged tropes of male-gaze orientated fantasy, and a discouragement of the sort of bigoted language that has free rein in many guilds. It is not sanitising to want two major female law characters to talk to each other about something other than a man, or to want a female boss to be the focus of an expansion, or to speak out against rape culture (I really recommend reading the comments of Wolfshead’s article as well, as there is some excellent discussion/points made by Ken and Ysharros. This blog post is not a critique/answer to Wolfshead, but he does represent very mainstream opinions.)

As a geek feminist I commonly have my views dismissed because I’m directly commenting on issues that currently concern main-stream feminist (like gender representation in government, gender mutilation, contraception and body rights.) This is not a blog about mainstream feminism, about why menstrual products are taxed as luxury products or how I feel about wearing make up at work. The value of the more global battlefields do not mean that the smaller geek/culture discussions are not worth having. Games, Art, TV, they all reflect values and attitudes that we have in the real world. Science Fiction and Fantasy have long been a place for writers to speculate on topics of gender, power and sex, and Games merely continue that tradition as they enter our lives very early on in the western world. Geek things matter to me, and I’m invested in them. I chose to watch and read all kinds of things, but consumption of media doesn’t grant immunity to critique (or we’d never have game reviews.)

The idea that as geek females we should simply put up and shut up, we should be quiet, and that we are to blame because we want to participate, is extremely damaging and sexist in it’s own right. All too often male bloggers and posters on forums will pull out a female gamer friend who agrees with their point of view and use that to support a privileged point of view. As a gamer I have fallen into the trap of painting myself as ‘not like those other girl gamers who flirt and cause drama’, and that sort of internalised sexism is as much a hindrance to equality and progressiveness as anything else.

On Heteronormativity, Race and Gender Binaries

And all of the above comes from a straight, white, educated woman. There are many further discussions to be hand on intersectional topics. If women, who aren’t a ‘small minority’ have trouble enough with being told that being ‘not quite equal’ is good enough, then topics of race and sexuality (which are talked about even less than feminism) are the elephant in the room. This isn’t about men, or hating them, it’s about what is not visible already. It’s bigger and more complicated than trying to boil gender bias down to ‘boys v girls’.

7 thoughts on “I don’t see your problem: Sexism, World of Warcraft and Geekery

  1. Jessamyn

    I loved this post at wow_ladies and I’m really happy to see it here at geekfeminism.

  2. Yoz

    I’ve never played WoW, but I was thinking along these lines about another Blizzard creation: Starcraft. Of several characters in the plot, the only woman is Sarah Kerrigan, an espionage agent who also develops a romantic relationship with the game’s hero, Jim Raynor. She’s later used as bait by her boss (the main human bad guy) and captured by the Zerg (the animal/biological race, least sympathetic of the three Starcraft races) who mutate her into a Brood Queen. She becomes the game’s central baddie, a power-mad leader who betrays every alliance she makes. When we pick up at the beginning of Starcraft 2, Raynor is getting slowly drunk in a bar and being wistful about the hideous transformation of a woman he once loved.

    As the article says, horrifically few games even have a female character, let alone pass the Bechdel test. But come on, Blizzard: Sole female becomes romantic conquest, then sacrificial victim, then undergoes radical biological transformation into treacherous matriach of the Other? Tough divorce, was it?

    1. Pewter

      Do you mean me personally, or the geekfeminism blog? I would be happy to, but I currently don’t have the funds to obtain a copy of any of those three games (sadly) and my blog is primarily WoW/MMO focused, although I am tempted to expand it somewhat!

      They certainly are games that I wish to explore though!

  3. Amanda

    ” consumption of media doesn’t grant immunity to critique”

    Perfectly put. I’ve been trying to explain that one for years…this phrasing should help!

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