I’d like to tell you a story of a woman, kidnapped and enslaved at a young age. Hollywood would be tempted to tell the tale of her becoming a jaded, hardened badass who fights back against such a system, freeing herself and perhaps exacting revenge on her captors. There is an empowerment in that, sure (even if it’s not inherently healing), but in speculative fiction there’s much to be gained from experiencing the lives of women outside of this Stock Type too. Amazingly, the story I’m describing did exactly that.
She ended up being freed as a young adult by another woman, one who apparently wants to make the world a better place, and chose to commit her life to that cause, even though she was by no means required to do so. During her time, she made a true empathetic connection with another former-slave and victim of sexual violence—in his case, sexual mutilation. The two worked alongside one another and became trusted advisors, going as far as to challenge the racial privilege of the second-in-command, even if ultimately conceding in their plans; they seemed to feel that incremental improvement is better than nothing. Through each other, they found solace and an ability to begin to process their trauma and move towards healing.
When their survival seemed at its most uncertain, they pursued a physical relationship together—one with a heavy focus on trust, consent, and mutual understanding. Truly, something meaningful transpired there, and demonstrated how there are different ways in which women might navigate their own traumatic pasts to reclaim their agency and begin to heal.
Anyone who’s kept up with Game of Thrones will know immediately that I’m telling the story of Missandei of Naath, as portrayed by the HBO program. And anyone who’s kept up should also immediately recognize what an anomaly this is. There’s usually no place for a character like Missandei on David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s show, and frankly there was no place for her once her rather tasteful love scene with Grey Worm ended. In Thrones’s final episode of Season 7, the two of them didn’t even get a reunion, or any acknowledgement of each other (I’d have taken a headnod), though we were thankfully able to be reminded of how significant Podrick Payne’s penis was in the eyes of Bronn.
Thrones is not sexist because Missandei and Grey Worm were booted to the sidelines after the second episode this year; they were booted to the sidelines because it is a show where a sexist approach to storytelling is thoroughly woven into its fibers. For three years now I’ve attempted to break this down, from explaining how the tropes employed in Season 5 revealed misogynistic assumptions on the part of the writers (likely unwittingly, but how is that helpful?), to the sloppy way in which Season 6’s worldbuilding rendered any type of female empowerment worthless, though there was (of course) only one sexist pathway to it anyway.
Well here I am looking back at Season 7 with no clue how to begin explaining something that is more or less the show’s defining feature. Yes, it is still that sexist.
“But there’s lots of women in charge of things! This was the season of two queens and Sansa running Winterfell!” someone might reasonably say. And this is the crux of the issue and why, in my opinion, the show falls victim to such sexist writing in the first place. Because feminist storytelling isn’t merely shoving women into positions of power and then jumping up and down ‘yas queening’ them. It’s providing a narrative with feminist takeaways for the reader/viewer.
In speculative fiction, gender dynamics should be portrayed (along with any other kind of system of oppression) in a way that provides insight or forces the audience to think about the different struggles of different people within that society, which inherently drives conversations for what this means in our own world. So this means that the difficulties faced by the characters of Thrones as a result of the toxic patriarchy in which they live have to have meaning for there to be a feminist takeaway. A woman simply existing in a position of power offers no inherent challenge other than “try to find a dialogue on the internet about this character that doesn’t result in sweeping judgements about the capacity of all female rulers being made.”
Because of course those generalizations would be made! Of course there are people who think, of all things, that Thrones actually capitulated too much to ‘SJWs’. Jon Snow knelt to a woman—a woman—I say! If anything the only sexism on this show is…is…sexism against men.
Sorry, I’ll stop roleplaying as a redditor, but this is not an “out there” stance taken on the show. It is, however, an incredibly superficial one, and one I believe the showrunners have taken as well. Women merely being in a position of power is an end in itself, and a progressive one at that.
But…this completely ignores their actions in power, as well as the sexist tropes and assumptions that serve as the foundation for the writing in the first place. It’s nothing but a facade of feminism, and one with dangerous misogynistic messages lying just underneath.
Be a Dragon
Rather than breaking everything down into discrete tropes or reexamining the faux-empowerment of violence/revenge, I think it’s more constructive if we zoom back on the whole of season 7. Part of that is because nothing really happened, but another part is that the scripting of everyone was all over the place. Remember when Cersei appeared for just one scene, where Tycho Nestoris praised her for a gold delivery that was en route? In isolation it’s fine enough, but at the same time: what the hell was this? Were we meant to side with him? Were we meant to be upset when Daenerys attacked said gold (or…not, apparently)?
Scenes just sort of seemed to…happen this year.
That messiness aside, it’s clear that one of the central driving tensions was the War of the Two Queens: Daenerys and Cersei. They both burned down religious institutions last year to bring about their respective queenships, and the people who might have been upset about said religious institutions burning down were turned into their ardent supporters.
“The Iron Bank appreciates how you cast off the yoke of superstition, freeing the crown from elements who sought to subvert the rule of law.”
Then throughout the season, they oversaw their troops and worked to solidify political alliances as they clashed in the battlefield. When a far bigger threat to their ultimate survival was revealed, they both came together to discuss this and agree to a truce, one that Cersei had no intentions of upholding.
This sounds great, doesn’t it? I mean sure, in a setting such as Westeros where we’re told that Sansa’s rape was an inescapable reality of the world, you would think they’d have both had some difficulties being treated seriously as political threats, but that’s its own issue. It was still two powerful women vying for the most important position in the land.
Except…they were both somehow remarkably passive during the whole thing. Sure, we got Olenna’s completely empty advice to Daenerys:
“Will you take a bit of advice from an old woman? He’s a clever man, your Hand. I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them. The lords of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No. You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.”
Okay, go be some grapes, Olenna. Is this what Benioff and Weiss think female empowerment looks like?
However, throughout the season Daenerys did listen to clever men. That’s kind of all she did. Tyrion proposed the world’s worst battle strategy, because it was “more humane” to slowly starve an entire city and split her troops than to directly strike her enemy, and she agreed. When that blew up in their faces, she wanted to take her dragons to end the war, but first asked Jon what he’d do, who talked her out of attacking King’s Landing. Instead, she took one dragon and attacked the Lannister soldiers, which was intercut with shots of Tyrion looking very worried, and ultimately framed as a bad thing when she used Drogon to execute Lord Tarly and his son for refusing to bend the knee.
She then signed on to Jon and Tyrion’s god-awful “let’s capture a wight” plan because Jon convinced her that she needed to fight in the North and this clearly was the only path towards a totally necessary truce with Cersei (sure). Her one great, proactive choice in this, to not listen to Tyrion, was so that she could save Jon’s stupid face from the idiotic mission (he asked nicely). Finally, she spoke about four words to Cersei during the truce negotiation, instead giving Tyrion and Jon the floor and only adding a quick “I didn’t believe it myself” to back up their points.
Nothing that changed for her politically was through any decision of her own. Hell, when she had her coalition of Badass™ women gathered around a table, it was only Tyrion who volunteered a plan, and it was an objectively terrible one at that. Was this supposed to be meta commentary on how dumb the male characters are? Because it wasn’t framed that way at all.
Jon was heroic. We know that because he swung his sword a lot at bad guys. Then Tyrion was presented to us as wise and rightfully concerned about Daenerys’s nature. Her best attribute that he listed was her willingness to listen to him. In fact, the two driving tensions in her plotline were whether or not she’d schtupp Jon, and whether or not Tyrion could control that horribleness of hers.
Tyrion: I can’t make her decisions for her.
Varys: That’s what I used to tell myself about her father. I found the traitors, but I wasn’t the one burning them alive. I was only a purveyor of information. It’s what I told myself when I watched them beg for mercy– I’m not the one doing it. When the pitch of their screams rose higher– I’m not the one doing it. When their hair caught fire and the smell of their burning flesh filled the throne room– I’m not the one doing it.
Tyrion: Daenerys is not her father.
Varys: And she never will be– with the right counsel.
The voices leveraged in Dany’s plotline? Men. The proactivity and planning? Men. What did she do? Apparently not much aside from advocating for the brutal murder of her adversaries, which we were supposed to find very concerning.
Then there was Cersei, who I’m not even sure what to do with. I know she’s supposed to be absolutely unhinged. She blew up the sept. We were told over and over how bad she was, both in- and out-of-verse.
“All that’s ever mattered to Cersei is her children, and, in relatively short order, Cersei has lost all of her children. She now is in a very dark place, and all she really has left is power for the sake of power.” —D.B. Weiss.
However, in this season, she was once again a super reasonable actor. She convinced Reach bannermen to join her cause using the stigma of the Dothraki and dragons against them, she acted as the stable establishment to the point where the Iron Bank representative was actually praising her for blowing up the sept because it had freed the people from superstition, and her point against signing up for this “let’s fight the army of the dead together so you can then turn around and crush me” was a valid one, even if it was apparently too much for Jaime. Hell, she was even the one decidedly in charge of where to commit troops. She orchestrated an off-screen deal with Euron to ensure her army would remain in a strong position, plus she was the only mind anyone was trying to change during the entire final episode.
And we were told how evil she was.
We were told that this woman, with a reasonable approach to governance and a realistic assessment of her own military capacity, was the worst person ever. Thought her baby would have made her care about humanity? Well you were wrong! We can have a discussion about what she should have done and what was moral to do in the face of the wight (just ignore that zombie guarding her), but it’s really an exercise in futility.
Cersei is evil. She’s turned on by violence (evidenced by Tyene’s death), and her political ambition is framed as a terrible thing because it’s just a selfish “dynasty for herself.” Women don’t get to want power or do anything unilaterally from such a position without being antagonists, even if we know the only reason Cersei attained it was for her literal survival.
The war of two queens was sexist nonsense, and in the end, it really just served as a pleasant backdrop for Tyrion’s struggles as Hand, Jaime’s reaching his breaking point with Cersei, and Jon going off on his super exciting action mission. Infantilized and controlled woman = good, but only if they listen to their men. What feminism.
A Little Game
There was more or less one other plotline in the entirety of Season 7, since Sam at the Citadel is barely worthy of thought. I’m speaking, of course, of Winterfell, which believe it or not, was fairly promising in terms of offering a relatively feminist plotline.
I have a feeling we were supposed to be more on Jon’s side than Sansa’s with their early bickering, but once he left for Dragonstone, she was left to run the entire North and did a damn good job at it. Sure, she was doing it in vampish attire, but we saw her handling the Northern Lords with grace, and worrying about things like grain stores and proper armoring for the cold. It was all a bit basic, but nothing particularly revenge-filled or violent.
However, all that went up in smoke the second Sansa was reunited with her siblings. Arya was instantly suspicious of the way she was running things, since they were going over well with the Northern Lords, unlike the King who Fucked Off Out of the North. This then led to a bizarrely escalating tension between the sisters, where not only did they not get along, but Arya threatened to outright murder Sansa and steal her face. “Catty women” is a sexist trope, and one Game of Thrones has a long history with, but this was an entirely new level.
What’s weirder still is that while this may have worked in a kind of “oh god, look what Arya’s become” way, it was instead played as this reasonable beef between them. Arya took to blaming Sansa for the downfall of House Stark, and the damning evidence—a letter Sansa had been forced to write to Robb asking him to bend the knee to Joffrey—was evidence that Sansa herself feared, meaning it must have been a somewhat valid point on Arya’s part.
Then…were we supposed to find Sansa’s “ambition” a concern? When she and Jon would snipe at each other, it was his word that was the final say, and his decisions were usually presented to us in a positive. We also saw her likening herself to Cersei saying that she had “learned a lot from her” (because she was reasonably pointing out a threat to Jon). Later the weather vane Northern Lords seemed about ready to oust Jon as king and replace him with Sansa. Was there the implication that if Arya hadn’t been giving her the stink eye, she would have been tempted by this? Because there was no evidence of that whatsoever in her words or actions.
Finally, there was a bizarre fascination in Winterfell with female clothing. First, Lyanna Mormont stood up and announced that she had no designs to knit and instead wanted all women to fight, because #feminism and what army has ever needed socks in the wintertime? Then we got not one, but TWO scenes of Stark siblings recalling how Sansa was wearing a “pretty” dress just before something traumatic happened to either herself or her family: namely her rape and Ned’s beheading. Was the connection between the expected performance of femininity as demanded by Westerosi custom and these horrible events supposed to be there? If Sansa had been a “badass” like her sister and worn leather action outfits, would these have been prevented?
Collectively, everything painted a picture condemning any feminine-coded activity, which once again falls into this show’s pattern of only allowing a toxically masculine mold of empowerment. Hell, even the resolution of the plotline was part of this, since the way Sansa got Arya to no longer want to kill her was by ordering Littlefinger’s execution and getting revenge for their family. Then, when Arya tried to sort of apologize by saying Sansa was doing a pretty bang-up job running Winterfell and she couldn’t have done it, Sansa disagreed and called Arya the “strongest person” she knows, which was played completely earnestly.
Why was Arya’s character even remotely portrayed as reasonable or praise-worthy to us? She came in, didn’t seem to have the ability to empathize with any of her family members, only showed an interest in fighting, and immediately became suspicious to the point of threatened murder because Sansa was doing her job. And since this entire plotline was one idiotic bait-and-switch so that the viewer could be so SURPRISED by Littefinger’s death, how is this the best execution of it that Benioff and Weiss could come up with? Is this truly how they think two sisters with differing personalities would act after years of trauma and separation from one another? Is it that difficult to conceive a world in which women can get along and lift each other up?
The answer is, of course, yes. Benioff and Weiss still are woefully inept at writing women outside of their Badass Action mold, because that’s the only acceptable behavior for anyone. Women exerting agency in a different way? Well, they’re evil like Cersei, or cause for concern, like Sansa’s apparent political aspirations. Hell, they’re woefully inept at writing men like this too, which is why Theon had to beat an Ironborn to death to make his point.
Remember kids, violence and physical fighting capacity make you a strong character, and that’s not based on patriarchal bullshit at all!
The Reality of the World
It’s kind of funny, in some ways, that another thing Benioff and Weiss are completely unable to write is actually the patriarchy itself. You see, this whole “this world needs violence against women because realism” thing, or even the fact that we’re supposed to be celebrating Cersei and Dany as queens, only really works if there’s a system they triumphed against. Again, character struggles have to actually mean something for there to be a feminist takeaway. Otherwise it’s just random shit happening on our screens that may or may not feature women.
But, like I detailed last year, the patriarchy only exists sometimes, usually as an excuse for something bad happening to women. For it to exist all the time, that would require the writers to put themselves into the shoes of their female characters and really think how such a system might affect them, and…the awfulness of the two major plotlines I just described above wouldn’t exist.
If there’s a patriarchal system, then why would Ed Sheeran and his merry men not even ask Arya who she is, or where her lord father was, or if she needed accompaniment wherever she was heading? A young girl alone in the woods would be something for concern, no? But then in the same episode, Arya refuses to kill the women of House Frey (not like they can pass on the line, I suppose), because…? Feminism? Because she knew they were oppressed by a system? But is this the same system where no one blinked an eye at Queen Cersei despite her living brother being there, despite the fact that she blew up the smallfolk’s religious institution (and even Hot Pie knew it), and despite the fact that she was the same woman they had seen paraded naked through the streets—presumably to shame her?
At a certain point, we may just have to accept that the worldbuilding of this show is as sloppy and shoddy for gender dynamics as it is for travel speeds of ravens and Gendrys. In my view, it’s really not worth re-litigating the Magically Disappearing Patriarchy because Season 7 just didn’t even bother trying to include it. Lyanna Mormont wanted women to stop knitting, and everyone cheered. The Northern Lords were suddenly aware that Sansa might be a suitable candidate to serve as their Queen in the North, even though they all missed that fact last year. It simply didn’t matter, which is why the mere fact that it’s Queen Daenerys doesn’t matter either. Though the show likes to pretend it does.
What were the character actions? Whose voices were empowered? What was the messaging? Exactly what it’s been for the past few years. This was a season with Action Men doing Action Things, while women bailed them out, fought among themselves, or were horrible evil assholes for trying to get things done on their own. But hey, at least Missandei managed to tease out a slice of meaning.
Images courtesy of HBO
The Unattainable Beauties of BioWare
Happy week after Valentine’s Day! For those of you in a relationship, I hope you were able to spend time with your loved ones and maybe have a little romance. For those of you who are single, I hope that it wasn’t a terribly bitter or frustrating day. In honor of both these states, I’m going to be writing about Bioware characters. But not romanceable characters, oh no. Enough ink has been spilled about them. No, today, we are going to be talking about the ones who for whatever reason are non-romanceable. In fact, it’s going to be a list of who I consider to be the best non-romanceable characters in Bioware games.
A few ground rules first though. First, this list is completely and totally subjective. If you feel like I’ve missed a character, let me know in the comments. Most of these characters are either from the Mass Effect Series or the Dragon Age series. Those are the games I know the best have have played the most. Finally, I’m only going to list five male and five female characters. I could go on all day if allowed.
So, with that out of the way, let’s start with the guys. And first on that list is…
Right off the bat we get a character who seems to contraindicate my first two points. He’s from Jade Empire and isn’t normally the type of character I’d enjoy. But let me justify his place on my list. First off, he’s just a fun character. Pretty much his entire character is dedicated to fighting things with his axes, drinking, and drinking while fighting with his axes. Second of all, given what we do see of his backstory, he’s fairly sympathetic. He was abused by his father until he was finally to defend himself and killed his father, and then was tossed out by his mother. He fought in the arena until he thought he killed his brother. And finally, his voice. Victor Brandt voices him in the game, and that man could read from the stock exchange and make it sound like he was trying to seduce you.
I can understand why they chose not to have any love interests in Awakening. A lot of the companions are missable and even if they aren’t, there’s better than 50-50 odds that they would die at the end of the expansion. That doesn’t excuse them from making Nathaniel Howe though. He has a compelling and sympathetic backstory, an interesting perspective on the location and events, and a sardonic sense of humor that lets him either play the straight man or the funny man in conversations. And! He got an easter egg quest in Dragon Age 2. I just wish they had followed through and included him in Dragon Age Inquisition (and gave us the chance to smooch him.)
Bann Teagan gets a bit of a bad rap now, particularly after Trespasser. Time (and the switch to a new engine) were not kind to him, but I remember a different Teagan. A Teagan that stood up to Loghain. A Teagan that risked his life to defend Redcliffe, and then walked straight into a demon’s clutches to buy your party sometime. From a story perspective, having a female human warden marry (or at least be involved with) an up and coming Bann would make just as much sense politically as marrying her to the new king. And from a purely personal standpoint, I would have loved for him to respond to the “Who is dis women Tegan?” quote by saying “My future wife.”
Jeff ‘Joker’ Moreau
Ever since Mass Effect 1, Joker’s presence at the front of the Normandy has been very welcome. Snarky, quick with a quip and a comment about any of your companions, the only fault I have with him was that he was far too quick to abandon the Alliance and hook up with a bunch of racist, human supremacist terrorists in Mass Effect 2. But the fact that he’s loyal specifically to Shepard always melts my heart. I was hoping that in Mass Effect 3 he finally would be a romance option, but alas he was infatuated with EDI. It took a great deal of self control not to sabotage that relationship.
And here we come to my favorite non-romanceable male character: Ser Derin Barris of the Templar Order. Dude has it all. Good voice and one of the few male PoCs in the series. In addition, he’s everything that a Templar is supposed to be: brave, intelligent, loyal, and willing to defend the weak and the innocent. And yet, after the quest to recruit the Templars, you only see ever see him one more time. The cutscene where he is promoted to Knight-Commander. (A promotion he deserves.) I can only hope that he reappears in Dragon Age 4 as a full romanceable companion.
That covers my five favorite non-romanceable male characters. But what about the ladies? Let’s start with…
Gianna Parasini was one of those characters I didn’t expect to find myself liking as much as I did. When you first meet her in Mass Effect 1, she’s working (undercover) for Novaria’s Internal Affairs. She quickly shows herself not to be completely amoral. Just overworked, overstressed, and tired of being a Yes-Woman to a corrupt executive. When you see her again in Mass Effect 2, she’s much less stressed, and much more willing to joke with Shepard. She leaves far too soon, leaving a male Shepard with a kiss and a promise to see him around. A promise, unfortunately, left unfulfilled.
Dr. Karin Chakwas
Dr. Chakwas is an interesting addition to this list. She is much older then Shepard. She seems at first to be a poor match. But much like Joker, she offers Shepard a sense of continuity aboard the Normandy. She even mentions that as one of the reasons why she stays aboard the Normandy in all its various incarnations. And, unlike some returning squadmates or even Joker himself at times, her presence aboard the ship never seems forced. Of course Dr. Chakwas will be in the medical bay. Of course she’ll be happy to see you. And of course she’ll be waiting to share a drink with you.
Dr. Lexi T’Perro
Unlike Dr. Chakwas, Dr. Lexi doesn’t really provide much in the way of continuity between different versions of the ship. Instead, she almost provides a mirror for Ryder to see himself and his actions. When she’s first brought aboard as your team’s doctor, she’s nervous. And she channels this nervous energy into annoying practically everyone else on the ship. But as she gets more comfortable with the ship and how things work, she starts to relax a little. Not much, but a little. Add to that her backstory in addition to the fact that she seems to care for the team’s mental health as much as their physical health and you get a character who would be perfect to romance. Shame she’s not an option.
Emily Wong is one of the most frustrating examples on this list. In Mass Effect 1, she filled the ‘plucky reporter’ archetype so well that I missed being able to speak with her or give her an interview in Mass Effect 2. As the release date for Mass Effect 3 drew closer and rumors of a romanceable reporter on board the Normandy began to swirl, I had hope that it would be Emily. I was bitterly disappointed. The reporter character on the Normandy was quite weak compared to the strong impression Emily gave in Mass Effect 1. And Emily Wong herself? Unceremoniously killed off in a marketing ploy before the game was released. She deserved better.
Vivienne is a ‘love her or hate her’ type of character. As you can tell by her inclusion on this list, I am in the former camp. Aside from being one of the few women of color companions in the game, Vivienne brings to the table a unique perspective: A mage who fully supports a return to the Circles. Not only that, but she has clear, eloquent arguments to back her up. In addition to that, she has a very striking character design and a wonderful voice actress. Most important of all though is that if her approval of the Inquisitor is high, she seems to genuinely care about them and their well being. I just wish that she didn’t politely shoot you down every time you flirted with her.
So there you have it. My five favorite male and female non-romanceable NPCs from Bioware games. However, there is one person that I have thus far neglected to mention. Or rather, one group of people. That’s right, I’m talking about…
EVERY SINGLE DWARF FROM DRAGON AGE
In Dragon Age: Origins, it was just a bit of trivia. “Hey, did you know that you can’t romance Qunari and dwarf characters?” When Dragon Age 2 came out and we were introduced to Varric, it became a joke. But at least the dwarf fans could still console themselves by remembering that there hadn’t been any Qunari romanceable companions either. By the time of Dragon Age Inquisition and the introduction of Iron Bull and Lead Scout Lace Harding, it’s become one of my main problems with the series.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Why wouldn’t Bioware let us romance Scout Harding, or any other dwarf for that matter? Is it because the animation would look awkward? Too much work? In the end, I can only repeat the refrain so many others have, pining after characters who they couldn’t romance: “Maybe next game.”
Images courtesy of Bioware
Kingdom Come, Representation, And Layers Of Privilege
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a brand new Czech video game that just came out last week. And ever since its development started, there has been one big controversy connected to it: its almost complete lack of characters of colour.
It isn’t exactly helped by the fact that the chief mind behind the game, Dan Vávra, is right-leaning, and also a bit of an asshole when it comes to responding to these complaints. He doesn’t go far for an insult and refuses to listen to any kind of criticism. Not exactly the kind of person that makes one want to defend him.
So…this is where this article should end, right? A jerk makes a racist game, news at seven.
Well. It’s a bit more complicated than that.
Vávra isn’t the only person working in the development. And the most important thing to know about the game in this context is that it’s not a generalized medieval setting. Instead, it takes place in a particular set of villages and towns and the surrounding forests, villages, and towns that exist until today and that aren’t and never have been big or cosmopolitan in any way. A number of events in the game are based on historical events. It isn’t just a story, it the story of Česká Skalice just before the Hussite wars.
In this context, the usual arguments of “there were plenty of people of colour in Europe in the Middle Ages” fall kind of flat. The usual argument of historicity that is pulled for this is frequently false because Western history is whitewashed and contained markedly more people of colour that we like to pretend. But it’s not always false. There actually were parts of the world where only white people lived. And not only are there no particular historical marks of black, brown or Asian people being present in the particular time and place where Kingdom Come takes place, it would also be very unlikely.
Honestly, the most likely place to find a person of colour in the time period would be Sigismund’s armies, and since those play more the role of the antagonist in the game, that’s not exactly ideal. So this is not, in fact, a case of ignoring the real historical presence of black and Middle-Eastern people.
Instead, the first question to ask here is: is it ever legitimate to create all-white media? If we’re depicting a situation where there realistically wouldn’t be any people of colour – not just history, there are still plenty of towns in the world a non-white person has never set foot in – is it all right to make it whiter than new house paint?
On the face of it, the answer should be yes. As long as we’re depicting an actual situation, we’re depicting. And yet. It may be “accurate,” but it might at the same time be unwise in the current climate, where every all-white piece of media contributes to a narrative that is far from inclusive to people of colour.
So the second question: does it even matter? That is, is historical realism such an important goal to achieve?
Most media that supposedly take place in the past play hard and fast with history to make things more convenient for the narrative, so why should the amount of diversity, of all things, be what is kept realistic? It shouldn’t, that is the answer. As long as other things are changed freely, the argument of historicity is irrelevant one way or another.
Kingdom Come, however, is a game that takes great care to be as realistic as possible. The most frequent complaint from players at the moment is the insane difficulty of lockpicking because that isn’t easy in real life either. So does this change anything? Is the argument of historicity valid in such a case? In other words, even in those media that do their best to stay historically faithful, is such an ambition a worthy goal? Is it more important to have something fit history perfectly than to provide representation?
Accusations of rewriting history would naturally follow a negative answer. First, it’s important to point out that it’s no more rewriting than the constant whitewashing, and with a much better intention. But it is true that with a game that boasts of its realism, it presents a problem. It would discredit their claims of historicity if they simply ignored these kinds of facts. You cannot painstakingly reconstruct medieval Skalice and then add random representation from all over the world without becoming a laughing stock. Not the least because this sort of rewriting of history would play down the racism of the past, and that is not an excuse we should be making for ourselves.
Unless we say that media has to abandon goals of high historical realism, then, we have to admit that in certain setting an all-white cast is appropriate. So that brings forth another question: is it legitimate to choose such settings?
And this brings us to the more complicated power dynamics at play when it comes to Kingdom Come.
As I’ve said, Kingdom Come is a Czech game, dealing with events from Czech history. My history. We, as a country, have always played the lovely game of being both oppressors (towards Slovaks, the Jewish and the Romani people, and even Germans after WWII) and oppressed (by the Austrian empire, Nazi Germany, USSR). In the global world of today, we’re far from being the ones in the most desperate situation, but we’re also hardly the top dogs. On the global scale, we’re a minority.
And both our history and our present are mostly white.
Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a good thing. I’m not saying it as a good thing. It massively contributes to the widespread xenophobia in the Czech Republic. But it is what it is. The fact remains that our by far biggest minority are the Romani people, who form about 3% of the population. So every time you tell a Czech story, it is going to be overwhelmingly white.
So should we be allowed to tell our own stories?
Kingdom Come, of course, is not made for the Czech market. It’s distributed globally, and it means it has a global effect, on people who know nothing of our particular context. As an all-white medieval game – which is all most people will take out of it – it perpetuates exactly the image of whitewashed history that we need to rid ourselves of. It becomes part of the problem.
So does this mean, then, that when we want global money, we have to change the image of our own history to avoid exacerbating the global problem of racism? That is problematic as well, especially as making the game for Czech audience only is not a real option. Our ten million people total don’t make for a big enough audience to pay for a game with this kind of budget. It’s another kind of disadvantage global minorities have. It shouldn’t be necessary to pay for it by adjusting our stories.
And even disregarding that, what if we want to show our stories and our world to the rest of the planet? What if we want to share ourselves? We should be able to do that.
Yet…what if what we want to share turns into a white fantasy in others’ hands?
It seems it shouldn’t be such a big deal. Who cares if we change the skin colour of some characters in the story? It’s still going to be a Czech story. But the problem is, it doesn’t quite work that way. After all, that is the “I don’t see colour” argument, only in reverse.
What I’m about to say will sound insanely racist to anyone from a more cosmopolitan country, but when I was little, I didn’t like watching Sesame Street because the multi-ethnic children there were making it so very foreign to me. I saw them and instantly knew it wasn’t my world. Outside of my travel abroad, I spoke to one non-white person total before adulthood. And I live in the capital, the most multicultural part of the country. Whatever it says about us, the truth is that if we populate historical Czech stories with black people, most Czechs will not regard it as their story.
But there is a reason I was specific in this last sentence. There are truly very few black people living in this country even now. You know who is living here, though? The aforementioned Romani. The presence of Romani people in the game would not make any Czech person feel like it was not our story. It would make them angry — because the racism the Romani face in the Czech Republic is something incredibly ugly — but it would not make the game feel foreign. The Romani minority has been here since the Middle Ages, and there are definitely historical records of them being here in large numbers shortly after Kingdom Come takes place. In fact, there are even complaints of there being “more and more” Romani people in our records because of course our racism would be traditional.
We don’t know, of course, if there were any Romani around Skalice, but it was a way to include people of colour that wouldn’t break with general Czech history. It wouldn’t have gone against our own understanding of who has lived here for a long time. And yet they were never mentioned in any of the diversity complaints I have seen. There are also Cumans included in the game, and no one seems to care much either. And that brings me to my last point.
Demanding diversity in Kingdom Come with a particular idea of diversity in mind, the idea that is based on the ethnic composition of the US, is not only American-centric but also offensive to the oppressed minorities of the Czech Republic. And complaining about such lack of diversity truly does not come across in a way that would endear the author of the complaint to anyone Czech. Especially if the person complaining is white. If a person of colour is offended by so much mayo in their game and would like to feel represented, I can understand that.
But when a white privileged American talks about what sorts of representation a Czech game should contain – particularly with arguments like that Czechia is “just north of Italy” and Italy is by the sea so obviously there’d be plenty of people of colour in here, which is an actual argument someone presented – it suddenly gains whole another tone. Because whiteness is not the only privilege in the world, and while we certainly benefit from it, we do not benefit from the privilege of being American, and anyone from the US telling us how to tell our own stories without knowing anything about us is always, always going to ring a very uncomfortable bell with us.
So yes, making all-white games should be avoided when possible, because it reinforces an uncomfortable narrative. And representation is a good thing, especially representation of those who hardly ever find themselves on screen. Whenever at least a little possible, diversity should be supported. Warhorse Studios really should have included Romani people in their game, just as Czech filmmakers should try casting some in their films. But not all representation fits one muster and demanding medieval Skalice should look like medieval London only makes stories more identical to each other and less interesting. There is more than one kind of diversity.
Images courtesy of Warhorse Studios
Barbara Kean From Housewife to Mobster
Gotham had a tall order ahead of it at its inception. It had to take some the most iconic characters from the comic page and meld them in a story that takes place before they were iconic. Any prequel adaptation has to grapple with this in one way or another. But Gotham had the unique challenge with Batman’s famous rouges. The origins of so many of his opponents are intertwined with his. Gotham would have to reinvent these characters and their origins. The series has made these characters its own by allowing their development to move away from their comic book counterparts. There is no character with which this is more prevalent in than Barbara Kean.
In the comics, she’s anything but a rival to Batman. She’s the wife of one of Bruce’s closest allies and the mother of one of his sidekicks. Yet she herself plays but a small role in the narrative. Gotham’s Barbara Kean has made herself a part of the narrative in ways that have seem to have completely change the character we first meet. Gotham has taken a woman destined to be the mother and wife of heroes and made her one of the most prolific members of the Gotham City’s underworld.
We meet Barbara in the pilot engaged to James Gordon, the perfect place to lead to her becoming her comic book counterpart: married to James Gordon and the mother of his children. They’re in a good place in their relationship. As James finds himself confronted with the corruption of Gotham, Barbara becomes a pillar of support for him. She reaffirms his values when he doubts himself. But this can only last for so long. With James fighting against so much of the darkness in Gotham, it was only a matter of time before it got back to Barbara.
Even with the first bit of tension seeping into their relationship, Barbara’s still willing to stand by James. When she learns James’s life is at stake she goes to Carmine Falcone, the king of Gotham’s underground, to beg for his life. But after she’s terrorized by Falcone’s men, her own faith in James is shaken. She’s seen the true dangers in the mission he’s tasked himself with. She can’t share the burden he’s willing to take on.
At first, she falls back into old habits for the comfort and familiarity, drugs, and her ex-girlfriend, Renee Montoya. It doesn’t last with Montoya, and Barbara finds herself in a state of flux. During this time she meets Selina Kyle, who later becomes a close companion. She also meets Jason Skolimski. He becomes an inciting figure of change for her. A serial killer and psychopath, he takes Barbara captive and she almost doesn’t make it out alive.
Her time with him drives her to edge of sanity. Under his influence she kills her parents. She almost kills Lee Thompkins, James’s new girlfriend. The love she has for James becomes an obsession. It doesn’t end well for her with James stopping her. She’s arrested and sentenced to Arkham Asylum. But it ends up putting her in the perfect position for the next wave of her development.
Her stay in the Asylum is short lived. She’s broken out by Theo and Tabitha Galvan, the latter of whom she enters into a romantic relationship with. It’s through them she’s truly indoctrinated to Gotham’s underground. Barbara’s sanity at this point is shaky at best. Having a girlfriend willing to kidnap her ex-boyfriend and his current girlfriend doesn’t help the situation either. Though even when the last remains of her sanity seem all but gone, the compassion she held for James still comes through. Her kidnapping attempt unravels and her escape ends with her falling out a second story window. Before that happens she helps James, giving him the information he needs to take down Theo.
After some time in a coma, she’s released back onto Gotham streets. Though her love for James still borders on unhealthy obsession her pursuits become more personally motivated. She opens a nightclub with Tabitha. It’s successful but she’s gunning for more, namely to get out from under Oswald Cobblepot’s thumb. She’s openly contentious of the Penguin when he all but runs Gotham at this point. Only a few people could have gotten away with this without fatal consequences.
She gathers some powerful allies with the intention of overthrowing Penguin. And it works. She becomes the queen of Gotham, taking over the city’s underground. Unfortunately, it’s a short-lived reign when conflict brews among the very allies who helped her take down Penguin, and she ends up dead.
In the true fashion of comic books and their adaptations, Barbara doesn’t say dead for long. After she’s brought back to life she returns ready to take on the city again. Reaching out to Selina and Tabitha, they work together running a weapons racket to rebuild their status. Death seems to have tamed Barbara, she’s more rational with her return. She’s even willing to work under Penguin. If only for a short time until a better opportunity presents itself for her, Tabitha and Selina.
At this point, I think it’s important to note Barbara could have easily fallen into the old stereotypes of the ‘crazy bisexual ex-lover’ or even the ‘villainous queer’. But similar to the way the Carmilla series defies its negative tropes, Gotham’s exploration of these narrative tropes doesn’t feel like it steers into the negative aspects. Gotham also avoids these tropes in a way few other series could. The villains make up a huge portion of series. They are the lungs that breathe life into the series. As much as this series is about Bruce and James growing into the heroes we know they’ll become, it’s also about watching the other characters grow into the villains we know they’ll become.
Barbara earns her place among the villainous elite in Gotham. She’s gone from a mild-mannered Gotham socialite to one of its most conniving criminals.
She’s still a woman capable of deeply caring for someone. But now her way of showing she cares for someone involves fewer words of empathy and more shooting their enemies in the head. She learnt to thrive in a city where so few can even survive. She adapted in ways that not even James has been able to. Her place in the story going forward is still uncertain. The possibility of her and James come back to each other is small but stranger things have happened in this city. Though at this point it seems more likely one of the many colourful adversaries Bruce will face when he truly dons the cowl.
Regardless of where she’s going, watching her get where she is has been a wild and entertaining ride.