Not A Pretty Girl
Lately, some of my fellow gamers and I have been discussing stereotypical characters - the kind you find yourself making over and over again whether you intend to or not. As I composed my post about "the typical Beth character"--female, stealthy and tricky, sarcastic, tragic, kind of like Janeane Garofalo with a broadsword and some unhealthy revenge fantasies--I noticed a rather interesting thing about my PCs' appearances. No matter the system, no matter the character class, I couldn't remember ever playing a character who was physically attractive in the traditional sense.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that I was the only gamer I knew - male or female - whose female characters weren't supermodels. So the question I have to ask myself in this column is, what is it with female characters and the emphasis gamers place on their beauty and their body image?
Let me start out by saying that most of the time, there's absolutely nothing wrong with playing a female character who's pretty. This is fantasy role-playing we're talking about, after all, and in most cases playing a good-looking woman is no more dangerous than playing a super-strong, tough man. It's when gamers get into the mindset that female characters are only useful if they're beautiful that we've entered the danger zone.
Sadly, I've seen this kind of prejudice far too many times within the gaming community. I once participated in a Star Wars campaign where my character was a female, a Jedi, and a Noghri. The Noghri are a race of small, lizard-like beings that are not terribly attractive to humans to begin with, and to make it even worse, I took the flaw Albino. By all rights and purposes, this shouldn't have been much of a problem--the Noghri are rare enough that the average human in the Star Wars universe hasn't ever seen one, much less have the ability to apply a standard of beauty to them. But my poor little Noghri encountered more hostility from players and characters alike than any other character of mine--even Lupe the three-eyed werewolf! The other characters made fun of her appearance constantly (fellow Jedi included... way to roleplay their compassion for all life-forms, people), and she had a devil of a time getting any respect from NPCs. I wouldn't have had a problem with a little friendly ribbing if it weren't for the fact that one of the male players had actually taken Unattractive Appearance as a flaw for his human male PC, and never suffered a social stigma or had the slightest problem because of it. And after several sessions, I was even asked to make another character that would "fit in better with the rest of the PCs." (I refused.)
The idea that women have to live up to a certain standard of beauty in order to "fit in" with the rest of society is everywhere in the gaming community. Need proof? Pick up your average RPG sourcebook and look through it for pictures of women. I can almost guarantee you that no matter the system, no matter the publishing company, every woman you see depicted in the art will have a perfect body and model looks. (And frequently, they will show more skin than all the men in the book combined.) The picture of the heroic wizard with white hair, a poorly groomed beard, and wrinkled, leathery skin is standard and accepted in RPGs and fantasy, but when was the last time you saw a depiction of an average-looking older woman who wasn't an evil witch or a crone? I'd hazard a guess that backwards, sexist stereotypes like these make a large contribution to the lack of women in gaming. We deal with enough belittling images from the media that tell us how we need to look to be accepted without putting up with more of the same from a hobby that's supposed to be open to everyone!
I don't mean to create a stereotype of my own here, but male players, especially those with female characters, don't often help dispel these negative images by playing an endless succession of amazon warriors built like Pamela Anderson (and having GMs and fellow male players praise them for being brave enough to play women...I say try playing an overweight, middle-aged woman once. Run that by a bunch of male gamers and we'll see who has the guts to play a female character then!) Not that female players, especially those making their first characters, do much more. They seize the opportunity to max out their character's "beauty index," whether or not it contributes to their concept or will be the best use of their precious character points. I was once in a Mage group with four new female gamers, and our first few sessions very nearly became beauty contests: "I have a 4 in appearance!" "Oh yeah? I have a 5!" And they thought I was being stupid to only have a 2... Fortunately, most "good" gamers of either gender get past this stage, but there will always be a few who keep the vicious cycle going.
Now that we've defined the problem, what can we do to solve it? In my opinion, half the battle toward getting RPGs to recognize a more realistic body image is simply raising awareness about the current situation. Most people seem to have the idea that "it's a game, what harm can it do?" When female gamers get the idea that their characters have to be beautiful and use their looks to get respect, plenty. If you feel that your group is promoting an unrealistic view of women, and if those actions are offending you, speak up. Quite often, men don't understand the pressure that our culture places on a woman to have the body of Barbie or at least Cindy Crawford, so it's likely that male players may simply not realize when their relatively innocent depictions of beautiful women cross the borderline and become offensive. Explain your feelings and ask the GM and the other players to adopt a more progressive view of women in the future. If they still just don't get it, it's time to find a new group.
The next step is doing our part to avoid an unrealistic, looks-based portrayal of women in roleplaying games. GMs, it's perfectly fine to toss in the occasional lovely elf maiden or NPC possessed of an unearthly beauty, but your female characters should be about far more than their looks. Don't cater to "pretty" PCs any more than you would to "plain" ones; in fact, if you want to make things realistic the truly beautiful ones should have a lot of problems blending in and shaking off those crowds of starstruck admirers! Players, don't fall into the trap of thinking that your characters (male or female) have to be attractive; do it if it contributes to the concept, but don't make your game into an ego-building effort. (Besides, if you want to increase your self-esteem, wouldn't it make you feel better to play an average-looking person who accomplishes great things regardless?) And GMs and players alike need to realize that there are only a few dozen women who look like supermodels in the world, and several billion who don't, yet that doesn't make the vast majority any less interesting or worthy of telling a story about. "Beauty is more than skin deep," goes the old adage.
Roleplaying games are all about getting "under the skin" of a group of interesting characters and living their world, not contributing even more to the focus on appearance that's choking our culture. Let's make gaming back into the escapist fun it's supposed to be--female gamers, and women everywhere, will thank you for it.