Overwatch: “More feminist than usual”? | Vol. 2 / No. 2.1

Look, Ubisoft! Female characters! Photo: Blizzard Entertainment
Look, Ubisoft! Female characters! Photo: Blizzard Entertainment

This was going to be a post on why we need to get rid of “Dapper Laughs,” but since you wonderful people of the internet have already accomplished that, this week blogger extraordinaire Elle Irise discusses the latest from World of Warcraft creator Blizzard Entertainment: a game (“coming soon”) called Overwatch.


If there is one Facebook argument that I am seriously, seriously tired of having, it is the “why is representation important/why do girls have to be in things?” argument. Anita Sarkeesian is tackling it in her very excellent (if poorly cited—show your work, Ms. Sarkeesian!) Tropes vs. Women series of videos. Because this is the world we live in and everything is awful, she has received the DRD trifecta of vitriol and abuse for her efforts (DRD being “death threats, rape threats, and doxxing”). But a lot of people won’t engage with an idea unless they are able to publicly whine at you on a Facebook wall, which explains why I frequently have some form of argument in which I try (sometimes in vain) to answer the following questions:

Why does it matter how many girls there are in a game?

Why does it matter what they look like?

Why can’t they be sexy? [and the follow-up, “Are you a prudish, feminist harridan hell-bent on preventing everyone from having fun?” (You got me. Secret’s out.)]

And my favorite,

Okay, fine, there’s one girl, are you happy now?

The bottom line is, representation is important. The media we engage with affects how we see other people, and how we see ourselves. And if you get your ideas about women from video games, you get some really weird ideas. Setting aside the problems of the damsel in distress, the prostitute that you beat up for money, and other lovely issues that come up with non-player characters (i.e. NPCs) there are a lot of problems with female player characters as well. The first problem is the fact that there often just aren’t very many. First-person games with one preset main character rarely make that character female. The alternatives are games like Mass Effect, where your female main character is so obviously just a female version of the male main character she’s referred to as “FemShep.” Or the main character can be Lara Croft (who got a sparkly new rapetastic backstory in her latest revamp).

With multiplayer games, you often have more options. And by “more,” I mean at least one. In the past (read: the 90s) Capcom games were pretty diverse, but today the story’s a little different. Gender for multiplayer characters is usually attached to the class, and the female characters are usually the lithe, assassin-type characters. A great example is Lilith, the only female character/class in Borderlands whose class is literally called the “Siren,” the name of an ancient monster who seduced sailors to their doom (and I even like Borderlands.) In most MMO games such as World of Warcraft, you can usually play a male or female of any class or race, but your clothing options for said characters can vary wildly. The same armor or clothing set might fully cover the body of a male character, but leave giant gaps for skin to show in the leg, waist, breast, and arm area on female characters. Apparently, we’re immersing ourselves in a world so fantastical we’re supposed to believe that a chainmail bikini (yep, it’s a thing) is enough to keep your female warrior from getting stabbed in the gut with a lance.

So that is the state of things that leads to me watching the trailer and gameplay demo for the new Blizzard game, Overwatch, and instantly trying to figure out when they are going to let me give them my money. The setup of the game seems very similar to Team Fortress 2 (and in fact, has been compared to that game many times). A player is able to pick from a variety of characters with specific skills, abilities, and fighting styles—healer, tank, etc. The first and most obvious difference, however, between Overwatch and Team Fortress 2 is that in Overwatch you’re able to choose a female character. (There’s also more than one character of color (!!), but that’s an issue for a little bit later). Out of the initial twelve characters Blizzard revealed, five are women, five are men, one is a robot that is identified using male pronouns, and one is a genderless robot.

That is damn near gender parity, my friends.

The female characters represent a wide variety of class types, fighting styles, personalities, backgrounds, and appearances. For the ladies we have Tracer, the pixie-ish Englishwoman who shoots things and darts about in time, Symmetra, an Indian woman capable of bending reality and creating portals, Widowmaker, a French assassin with a wicked grappling hook, Pharah, an Egyptian robot-armor-wearing soldier with a blaster gun, and Mercy, a Swiss healer with angelic armor. Their appearances range from Pharah’s near-Gundam armor to Widowmaker’s slit-front catsuit and pale blue skin (genetic modification, slowed heart rate… look, stop asking questions that assume logic, another character is a highly-intelligent gorilla). The characters are all provided with pretty epic backstories, including getting becoming temporarily desynchronized from time, to being plucked from poverty to become an academic and architect/secret agent.

Now, there are still a few problems. The women are all still gorgeous and lithe (even Pharah, under the whole robot armor thing). Widowmaker is still basically your stereotypical femme fatale—sexy, deadly, scantily clothed, and French. And while the game’s attempts to be inclusive in terms of race, sometimes they come across a bit heavy handed and stereotypical—when Pharah takes off her helmet, she has eye-of-Horus style eyeliner and two strands of beaded hair framing her face.

However, the important thing for me as a gamer and as a cultural critic is the range. For the most part, Overwatch is giving gamers female characters that have actually been developed to the point that they are unique individuals who represent a similar diversity to that of its audience. And that range and diversity is what I’m really asking for. When I complain about representation of women in videogames, I am not demanding that we burn all of the chainmail bikinis (could you even do that?) and replace them with full-body robes. Having a sexy character is a valid choice a player should be able to make—as long as that is not their only choice. Men and women exist on a spectrum from sexy to prudish, shallow to brainy, etc., and all I’m asking is that video games represent that spectrum for male and female characters alike.


Check out the (admittedly pretty awesome) full-length trailer for the game below. Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week in Tomorrow. When she’s not being sarcastic on the Internet she studies gender in popular culture.


Update: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that gender equality was much more the case in mid-1990s Capcom games, as pointed out by Ollie Barder at Forbes.