As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m a great fan of the Dragon Age series. I enjoy the soap opera-esque drama, the wisecracks, and waving around a giant sword while covered in the blood of my enemies. The game even has some aspects that are laudable from a feminist perspective. Wynne is one of my favorite characters of all time (and a fine illustration of Dalstål’s Law1) The love interests for a female character are just as well written and fully fleshed-out as they are for the male characters. Alistair, the male lead of the game, breaks with stale tropes of masculinity and shows real vulnerability and indecisiveness throughout the game.
The game also has some less feminist features.
In this essay, I’d like to talk about a very specific feature of Dragon Age: Origins: the female monsters. Throughout the game, the player encounters humanoid enemies (such as bandits or soldiers) that are both male and female, with no significant differences between the two sexes. The monstrous enemies in the game, on the other hand, follow a different course. While most of the monsters are agendered or masculine in form, there are two monsters who are feminine — the broodmother and the desire demon. There’s nothing wrong or sexist about having a game that has monsters that are female. But the desire demon and the broodmother are different. These monsters are monstrous because of their femininity. Their monstrousness is directly linked to misogynistic beliefs about female sexuality.
The demons in Dragon Age: Origins have asexual bodies and speak in distorted, vaguely male-sounding voices if they even speak at all. There is only kind of demon that is strongly gendered: the desire demon. Despite its sexualized appearance, husky voice, and tendency to stroke its crotch and breasts when speaking, the desire demon doesn’t actually engage in much sexual activity at all. There are three instances when the players can possibly interact with a desire demon, and all three present scenarios that are virtually devoid of sexuality.
The first shows a desire demon who disguised itself as a cat in an attempt to feed upon a lonely young girl’s desire for friendship. The second involves a deluded templar in the Tower of Magi. The templar, who is forbidden to marry or raise children by the law of the Chantry, has been bewitched by the demon into thinking that he is living a life of simple domestic bliss with her. Though the demon is disguising herself as his wife and their children, they are not depicted as engaging in any sort of sexual activity. If left to their own devices, they discuss the children and their dinner. It’s a scene that could easily be taken from a Ferelden version of “Leave it to Beaver.”
The final scene involves a confrontation with a desire demon who has possessed Arl Eamon’s son, Connor, who appears to be a young teenager. He was tricked into possession by a desire demon who promised to save his father from death by poisoning. While in the thrall of the demon, Connor acts out fantasies of power and control, attacking his own people and humiliating the adults around him. There is seemingly no sexual element to his fantasies, despite the fact that he is a vulnerable teenage boy being approached by a beautiful woman who is wearing nothing but pasties and a scarf.
So why is the desire demon depicted as it is if its modus operandi seemingly doesn’t involve sex at all? One could answer this in several ways, none of which necessarily preclude the others. The first and most obvious is that just about all women in video games are depicted as sex objects, regardless of whether it makes sense in the game world or not. The second is that the artists and developers might have decided that the desire demon should resemble something that they themselves would consider desirable. This is inconsistent with the other demons. The hunger demon doesn’t resemble a hot dog, the pride demon is ugly, and if I saw a sloth demon, I would scream and run the other way rather than lie down and take a nap.
The third explanation (and I think, the most compelling) is this: our collective visual vocabulary of desire — especially sexual desire — is very limited. When we speak of sexual desire, our cultural instinct is to think of the objects of traditional heterosexual male desire. A naked woman — a young, slender, busty white woman — is our visual shorthand for sex. (If you don’t believe me, try doing a Google Image Search for the word “sexy.”) Desire means a man’s desire to have sex with a woman, or (sometimes) a woman’s desire to be considered desirable by a man. The desire demon itself feels no sexual desire, but that is irrelevant: what’s important is not what a woman desires, but how desirable she appears.
While sexless sexiness might be embodied by the desire demon, sexual reproduction is shown in a different light.
The darkspawn reproduce by capturing women2 and transforming them into creatures called broodmothers.
The process by which a woman is turned into a broodmother is described vaguely during the game. The woman is force-fed darkspawn blood and the corpses of other humanoids. A witness to the transformation states that the woman in question is “violated,” but whether this refers to any rape is left unclear. It’s another good reminder that vaginas are inherently tragic and that you should never own one while in a fantasy fiction story. Eventually, the woman becomes a giant, immobile monster, covered in many sets of enormous breasts and capable of birthing thousands of darkspawn. She is a textbook example of what Barbara Creed calls the woman as monstrous womb in the classic text The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, feminism, and psychoanalysis. She cannot be saved; she is utterly destroyed in mind and body by her violation. The players must kill her to progress further in the game.
In Awakenings, the principal antagonist is a broodmother referred to simply as The Mother. She is portrayed as an insane, hateful creature — especially when compared with her foil, the cool, collected (and male) Architect. Just in case that we forget that women are supposed to be beautiful, we are reminded when the players encounter the broodmother in person for the first time, prompting one of the party members to comment on how hideous she looks. This is not done with any of the male or agendered monsters of the game.
The fearsome High Dragons are female, the Codex notes. They are known to go on violent feeding binges during their reproductive cycle.
The other two mothers3 in the game are similarly monstrous. Flemeth is an ancient monster who kills the men she has sex with, and eventually consumes her own children. Her daughter, the ruthless, amoral Morrighan is highly sexual, and late in the game reveals that she has only followed the Warden’s party so that she could seduce the Warden (or Alistair, if the Warden is female) before the Archdemon in order to cast a “dark ritual”4 that will result in her becoming pregnant with… something. The nature of Morrigan’s pregnancy is never revealed, but it seems to have something to do with the essence of the Archdemon itself.
It’s worth noting that the heroic women of the game do not have children. Grey Wardens are rendered infertile by the Joining. This fact is only mentioned5 in the game if the Warden is a female human Noble who is trying to marry Alistair and become queen of Ferelden. In Awakenings, potential recruits are warned that they might die during the Joining, but none are warned of the potential effects of fertility, and no one seems to mind. This seems odd, considering the importance of child-rearing in most people’s lives.
The desire demon and the broodmother both invoke classic misogynistic archetypes of science fiction and fantasy that are representative of misogynistic cultural attitudes. In tabletop gaming, there are dozens of examples of woman as temptress and [NSFW]woman as monstrous womb (or in some truly Freudian cases, both). If you’re playing an adventure that was written before the year 2000, and the PCs encounter a damsel in distress in a dungeon, your best bet is to just kill her, because she’s almost certainly a night hag/succubus/vampire/whatever.
It’s time to do things differently. The old tropes are not only misogynistic, but they’re deeply boring. I want to see women in science fiction and fantasy imagined in new and exciting ways.
I want to see women who have sexual desires, and are not only the objects of desire. I want to see pregnant women as heroes. I want childbirth and pregnancy depicted as natural events or even — gasp — desirable events. I want to see female monsters whose monstrousness does not stem from victimhood or from their femininity.
There are so many possibilities for female characters (and female monsters) in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy. Why limit ourselves to the old stories?
- Dalstål’s Law: Add the word “grandma” to any character concept and it becomes at least forty percent cooler. ↩
- Obviously, women are not the only gender capable of pregnancy, nor does the capacity for pregnancy or possession of vagina automatically make a person a woman. The game does not take on this subject. All broodmothers are referred to as “women” or use a female pronoun. By reinforcing the cultural ideas that reduce the concept of “woman” to a biological function (e.g., pregnancy) and by construing that function as monstrous, the game reinforces misogyny and a transphobic gender binary. ↩
- Fatherhood receives a stereotypical treatment as well. Father figures in the game follow traditional Campbellian lines by being either absent or corrupt; Arl Eamon arguably plays the role of the mentor. Confrontation with Teryn Loghain exemplifies a typical “atonement with the father,” after which the victorious hero conquers both the throne of Fereldan while simultaneously sexually conquering Anora and/or Alistair. ↩
- These are the literal words used in the game to describe the act. ↩
- Well, I haven’t finished playing the game with every possible origin/romance combination, so it might show up in other circumstances. ↩