Favorite Party Banter
Yesterday’s Tumblr discussions about the DA fandom’s take on female characters got me thinking.
As a confident, competent woman who isn’t a completebitch (just 87% bitch), I find it difficult to identify characters in media I can relate to. Too often a woman is confident but cold, or competent but socially inept – it’s like there’s a finite pool of confidence, competence and character allotted to female characters, and if you’re writing a woman, you can only pick two (if you’re lucky).
And it’s exhausting.
In a world of Sookie Stackhouses and Bella Swans, what I wouldn’t give for a few more Aeryn Suns, you know?
The rest of this long, long ramble is behind the break.
But before I begin in earnest, let me share a quick anecdote:
When I was a teenager, and prone to thinking Deep Thoughts about who I was and the woman I wanted to become, the TV show Ally McBeal was fairly popular, and my father and I would watch it every week – like Highlander and Saturday Night Live, it was one of the few things we could do together without screaming at each other.
In particular, I adored Nell Porter, Portia de Rossi’s character:
That confidence! That beauty! That power hair! Nell was everything I thought I wanted to be in a person and a woman – maybe she was sometimes abrasive, maybe she struggled to make friends, but she was always the most competent one in the room, and she gave none of the fucks and apologized to no one for being the biggest BAMF around. My father sometimes said I was a lot like her, and even though he’d meant it as a warning I always took it with no small amount of pride.
While I’ve since forgotten most of the show’s various twists and turns (although there was a dancing baby, right? I didn’t just hallucinate that?), one scene — one camera shot, really — remains etched indelibly in my mind:
After she has been rejected by the squirrelly, neurotic man she is inexplicably attracted to, Nell is shown sitting on the floor in her fabulously posh New York apartment, in fabulously expensive, bright red lingerie, looking lovely and honest and maybe even more beautiful than she ever had before — clutching a teddy bear and moping about her parents’ divorce, which happened some twenty-odd years ago.
I believe that scene was intended to show character complexity – that Nell actually had reasons for her coolness and inability to make friends; that even the strong can be vulnerable sometimes.
Of course, it accomplished quite the opposite.
What that scene actually told me was this:
A confident, competent, beautiful woman is an illusion.
Even the strongest women are weak when confronted by their own emotions.
Women can never escape or overcome the things that are done to them.
Thankfully, even at that age I was too much of a bull-headed bitch to take those particular lessons to heart – in fact, that scene was what eventually soured me on Ally McBeal as a whole — but I’ve always wondered how much we internalize these “truths” without even knowing.
It goes beyond just being told that women are the softer sex or the gentler sex. Again and again, we see women on TV, in books and movies — and of course in video games — finding their confidence, their fulfillment and their purpose only through love of husband, children, or community.
That is: Women are always shown defining themselves by how they relate to others, and never by how they relate to themselves.
And Maker forbid two women be put in a room together. According to Hollywood, vaginas are like magnets: Possessing one means you are by the laws of physics inherently incapable of being near another vagina without inducing some form of repulsion, be it in the form of cattiness or competitiveness or condescension. .
Part of that must be that most paid media writers are male, and so they often unconsciouslydefine the female characters they write by an outsider’s metric — that is, the perspective of an outsider always looking in. But part of it too is a fundamental misunderstanding, or maybe underestimation, of what it means to be woman. As beings born with the power of raw creation within us, we are inherently well-equipped to build and sustain communities; but usually the emphasis is placed on the community part, and not the “us” part – even though you can’t build spokes for a wheel without the hub to connect them to, you know?
All too often, the camera’s purpose in a movie or a game is to put a confident woman in her place; not to reveal the flaws in her character but highlight them – the chinks in the armor emphasized so that the audience can feel better about themselves.
It undermines the character, of course, but it undermines the audience, too, by assuming that they need this sort of reassurance, that they’re weak enough to feel threatened by a strong character — which may or may not start off being true, but if you hear that message often enough, it will certainly become so.
One of the magnificent, wonderful things about Dragon Age is that it doesn’t do this. The camera, so to speak, remains neutral.
DA’s female characters are competent, confident and compassionate – and completely flawed. But the writers never use those flaws to neuter or shame or otherwise undermine their characters. Instead, they are given to the audience as gifts — because flaws give your love something to stick to.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship between Aveline and Isabela.
In the hands of less skillful writers, these two characters and the friendship between them would’ve followed the same ol’ catty song and dance we’re all so familiar with. Aveline would’ve stripped off her guard armor and wept in her underwear about Wesley, and Isabela might have eventually learned the value of pants, and the two would have sniped at each other until the love of the right man softened them both and set them straight.
That’s not to say that Aveline and Isabela don’t snipe at each other, or don’t have crises of confidence, or don’t exhibit some very real flaws.
But their nastiness to each other has a point. It’s not random violence; it’s an attempt from both to understand each other, to come to terms with the other’s perspective. Like two stones crashing against each other, Aveline and Isabela continue to beat against each other’s defenses until the harsh parts are smoothed away, and the two rocks eventually find a genuine fit.
I love that these two women learn from each other, that they grow and evolve because of the other’s presence. And when they clash, it is never just for the sake of the camera’s eye, but because they genuinely have something important that the other needs, and they just don’t know how to share it properly.
Which brings me to my favorite party banter.
It’s a two-fer.
Aveline: How are you so successful with men? You’re not that pretty.
Isabela: Cast a wide enough net, and you’re bound to catch something.
Aveline: (Laughs) At least you’re willing to admit it.
Isabela: Trust me. I’ve heard, “Get away from me, you pirate hag!” more times than I care to count.
Aveline: Doesn’t that bother you?
Isabela: Why should it? They don’t know me. I know me.
At first glance, this seems to break the Bechdel Test; two women having a conversation, and of course it’s going to be about men, right?
But look deeper. Because this isn’t a conversation about getting a guy. It’s a conversation about confidence, about relating to yourself and the world around you, and about overcoming the fears that keep you in place.
As such, this is not a conversation you normally see two women having in any media, much less a video game.
Aveline is such a powerful, competent woman – she has singlehandedly transformed the City Guard from a laughingstock to Kirkwall’s dominant force for justice and security (a transformation I’m sure the Chantry is none too pleased about) – and yet, she still doesn’t understand that that we all fail sometimes, that failure is okay. She failed Wesley (“in my heart, that cut was cruel”), and so if she has her druthers, she’ll spend the rest of her life never failing anyone ever again.
Just think back to her reaction when she realizes the jig is up with Donnic. It’s not, “I’m so scared he won’t like me!” – indeed, as far as we can see, that never even occurs to her (although it’s far from certain from her viewpoint that he does). No, Aveline is worried mainly about “how can I make it up to him and regain his trust?”
That is: Aveline believes she has failed Donnic simply by expressing her feelings for him.
If that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will.
Which is why Isabela’s perspective is exactly what Aveline needs to hear.
Isabela’s part in this banter is to remind Aveline that it’s okay to not succeed the first time you do something, to not catch a fish on the first try — as long as you get back up and throw that net back out to sea until you do. It’s not failure if you don’t stop trying.
And what’s more –- and Maker bless Isabela for this — Isabela encourages Aveline to not pay attention to the haters, because as long as you love yourself? That’s all that counts. Honey Pirate don’t give a shit.
Another quick aside, because I think Isabela is one of the most misunderstood characters in Thedas:
Isabela gets called a slut a lot, but that’s what the audience brings to the table, not what the writers originally gave her. She loves sex, she craves it, she exults in it, but that doesn’t mean she’s somehow broken or incorrect for doing so. And the writers never shame her for her sexuality; they’re very careful to never present it as a liability or a flaw of character.
Notice how Isabela never uses sex as a weapon — she does not squeeze her tits together to unnerve Lucky; she doesn’t hike up her jerkin to distract Castillon. The most she ever does is use sex as a convenient evasion technique, a smoke screen behind which she can stage a tactical retreat. (I’m reminded of the Act 2 conversation she has with Fenris, where he asks her about the relic and she defaults to, “You have pretty eyes”). Sex, for Isabela, is not just joy, but the preservation of life, specifically her own life – and for a prodigal princess from a country whose chief national export is fertility idols, I think that’s downright nostalgic of her.
The point is: Isabela knows who she is, and while she may not always like who that person is – after all, that’s why she comes back with the Tome — she is at least confident in her own capabilities of self-perception. It takes a certain strength of confidence and of character not just to admit that you were wrong, but to be willing to become a better person, and Isabela has that in spades – and what’s more, she inspires her companions to become better people, too.
Which leads me to Part Two of my favorite party banter:
Aveline: You’re right.
Aveline: About knowing who you are.
Aveline: I’m the captain of the guard. I’m loyal, strong, and I don’t look too bad naked.
Isabela: Exactly. And if I called you a mannish, awkward, ball-crushing do-gooder, you’d say…?
Aveline: (Calmly and firmly) Shut up, whore.
Isabela: That’s my girl.
FUCK YEAH AVELINE.
I love this game for a multitude of reasons, but not the least of which because it shows a strong, independent woman like Aveline becoming a better person as a direct result of her interaction and friendship with another strong, independent woman like Isabela. And when it comes to entertainment media, that kind of portrayal is as rare and beautiful as a rose in the Blight.
Isabela teaches Aveline that as a woman, it’s okay to define yourself not by the people around you, but by who you are inside.
That you are not destined to be a slave to your fears and your past; that a competent, capable and beautiful woman is not an illusion; and that loving and accepting yourself is not a failure of character but will set you free.
We could all use a reminder of that now and then.
Maybe — no, especially — Nell Porter.