The Importance of Breaking Gender Stereotypes in Fiction: Featuring Last of Us 2
The real world is filled with people of all different shapes, sizes, race and gender. Fictional worlds should do the same.
I normally don't jump on a soapbox and preach but I was compelled to delve into this type of character development analysis after playing the video game The Last of Us 2 and reading some of the mind numbing comments about the new character in the game: Abby.
The character is introduced as a strong female with a mission mindset. There's been a lot of hate thrown at this character for various reasons but one that I can't get over is the vitriol and venom over her physique. This is the first time, that I can recall, a female character in a game being muscular. Usually, they are svelte with big breasts and a tiny waist. Not Abby, she has a bodybuilder's physique and I for one am thrilled that she does!
Without going on about the specifics of the game, I'll just say that I enjoyed the inclusion of Abby as a playable character. For one thing, her facial features look eerily similar to mine. Hell, I even used to braid my hair up the way they have hair done in the game. When I was growing up I looked to strong women as role models so to have one be a playable character in a game made me enjoy it even more. Her actions are questionable but that's not what this post is all about. What I really appreciate is the fact that she isn't your stereotypical female fighter type who fits a certain mold propagated on overblown fantasy tropes. The real world just isn't like that.
But try to tell that to the gamers who believe, and I quote, that "women don't look like that." Coming from the world of fitness I can tell you that they most certainly do. Also, the amount of hard work and discipline it takes for a woman to put on that much muscle mass should be admired not ridiculed. Not to mention the fact that the Abby character is based on a crossfit athlete who really does look like that! Colleen Fotsch was used as the body double for this character. Her musculature is a thing of beauty. So if you're insulting the Abby character and calling her a man, you're basically insulting Colleen who is a beautiful, strong woman. And c'mon guys, surely you've seen the WWE's Chyna before? She was solid muscle...especially when she first started! It leaves me wondering if the people ridiculing aspects of the game know anything about women at all. Don't even get me started on the game's sex scene reviews and the lack of knowledge some folks have on a women's anatomy...but I digress. If anything, Lara Croft from Tomb Raider is an unrealistic depiction of a real woman, save for Angelina Jolie who played her in the movie...and even Jolie had to stuff her bra for that part!
People have suggested real women could never look like Abby (when in fact her body is based on that of a real-life CrossFit Games athlete Colleen Fotsch); that it isn't possible to bulk up in a post-apocalyptic world; and that she must be transgender (she isn't).
This misogyny has spilled over into real life. It has led to the character's voice actor, Laura Bailey, getting death threats while the game's creators have received antisemitic, misogynistic and transphobic abuse. All the toxicity has once again shown how gaming audiences still can't handle realistic female bodies. - Quote from INDEPENDENT
The point is, there are billions of people in this world and every one of them brings something different by way of personality and appearance. As creators it's up to us to depict the full 31 flavors of the world in our medium even if it challenges us.
Another example of how switching up gender stereotypes could benefit a story is the TV show The Resident. I know it's pretty popular but hear me out. When I sat down to watch it I couldn't get through the first episode. It became obvious to me they were running the same tired story I've seen a hundred times.
A brash, rogue doctor who doesn't play by the rules butts heads with his more by-the-books colleagues. Oh yeah, and he used to be in the military so that's why he's so brazen. To balance things, you have the no-nonsense nurse who is the only one that doesn't take his shit. Oh yeah, and they used to date. This formula is played out. But what if you turned it on its head?
I knew nothing about The Resident going in, I only tried it because I enjoyed watching Emily Van Camp in Revenge. So you can imagine my disappointment when I see her in the tired role of nurse no-nonsense. No consider this: you have the same rogue, brash, renegade doctor but it's Emily Van Camp in that role. You turn the cliche story on its head because now you have a woman in that part making the played out story a fresh, different version than the tired cliche. Does the man have to wind up being the nurse? No, not that there's anything wrong with him being in that role. My point is, with just a little change a tired story can be refreshed into something unique and all it takes is the guts to go there. The same goes for how you present your lead.
Trivia: Did you know the movie SALT was originally meant for Tom Cruise? Actress Angelina Jolie wound up with the part instead and they didn't even change the character much. The movie is an excellent example of switching up the norm.
My urban fantasy series Silke's Strike Force started out with a blonde, blue-eyed woman as my lead Silke Butters. Within the first few minutes of flushing out the story I changed her to an Indian-American instead. Why you ask? I ask you why not? I admit my cover artist took liberties with her endowments but we've been so conditioned to seeing the big chested comic book heroines busting the seams on their tights that even I missed it!
The rest of my cast is populated with men and women from all different walks of life. It creates a fictional world based in reality (as real as it gets when superpowers are involved). More than once I've been applauded for the diversity in the story. But I'm not looking for applause, although reviews are nice, I'm just looking to make the best possible story I can and that means populating my fictional world with realistic characters.
I think it's a sad commentary on the state of the world that the Last of Us creators are getting such push back on the physical appearance of a video game character. To that I say broaden your horizons. Step out of the basement and into the world. You'd be surprised to see what real women look like. And if that comment sounded a little too harsh to some sensitive ears all I can say is at least I'm not sending death threats to people I don't even know because a video game, or a movie, or a TV show isn't how I wanted it to be!
To my fellow authors, artists, and game makers...keep doing you. We need more people breaking the rules of what's expected.