The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsless Rogue: Dragon Age II’s Isabela

Reposted from PopMatters Moving Pixels.

I’m admittedly cynical about the phrase “owns her sexuality.” Not the concept, but rather the application of it, which I seem to find ascribed to any female character who fits the “girl who kicks ass” cliche irrespective of how she is otherwise objectified and depowered. I have listened to the arguments for why Bayonetta, for instance, is empowering and pro-feminine. Some, such as that by my blogmate G. Christopher Williams, are quite well-argued– but I still don’t agree. My view of the situation is perhaps best articulated by the likes of William Huber, who contended: “I had found it difficult to explain the inadequacy – even the wrong-headedness – of this approach, my perception that these depictions still ultimately served male vanities and played on female anxieties, and that the male game player – his needs, desires, and qualms – still was being overwhelmingly served in games that were supposedly being targeted to both men and women” (“The perpetuation of a misguided notion.”, 12 January 2010).

As a game designed by men and targeted to men (as most games are), Bayonetta does not particularly convince me that it is either profeminine or empowering in its cartoonish portrayal of the female figure. I’m open to differing opinions on this matter, but I’m not certain that the weaponized sexuality of Bayonetta or Atlus’s upcoming Catherine are the same as women “owning” their sexuality at all, not when they seem to simply play on male anxieties of emasculation and continue to serve moderately conservative, heteronormative social views.

Dragon Age II doesn’t break down doors or revolutionize women characters, of course, but it still has some positive characteristics that I like. I’ve spoken previously about my adoration for another Dragon Age II character, Aveline Vallen, and my appreciation for the Dragon Age universe’s gynocentric dominant religion, Andrastianism, which features a woman Christ figure. I’m not saying Dragon Age is a safe haven of liberalism and positive diversity representation in an industry sorely lacking it, but… Well, okay, so I am, but that isn’t to say Dragon Age is absolutely free of problematic representation. Indeed, it certainly issues aplenty. But if there’s one thing I never expected a game to do, it would be to teach me self-respect– or use its blatant sex appeal character to do it.

When I first saw the promotional art for pirate captain Isabela, Jack Sparrow’s long-lost twin sister, two things popped into my mind: “they’ve inflated her breasts” and “why can’t women ever wear pants?” Since playing the game start to finish twice, I’ve changed my mind considerably. Isabela is so cool that she doesn’t need pants. And her breasts can be as large as Bioware likes; it doesn’t mean that the way the camera cases on them while she’s slamming men’s faces into the bar is the only way she’s weaponized. Here, at last, is a woman character who really owns her sexuality, and I mean really.

Isabela is refreshingly frank in her sexual attitudes, not simply for reasons of titilation but for humor and personal expression as well. Throw two or more women characters into your active party and walk around– she’s as grotesque as she is insightful, and it’s fantastic. My favorite party banter conversations arose between Isabela and Aveline, who are as different as night and day and thus naturally butt heads. It would have been easy for Bioware to simply write this as endless, unresolved friction for comedic effect, but instead we witness an evolving rapport between the two women.

Seeing a chink in Aveline’s emotional armor when it comes to her husband, Isabela at one point drives the knife home.

Isabela: “You’re lucky to have a man who wants to please you. But maybe you could indulge him more. Are there areas of intimacy you haven’t explored?”
Aveline: “Why? Why do you give me these doubts?”

These sexual anxieties Isabela introduces (in part of an ongoing rivalry based largely on Isabela’s sexual freeness and Aveline’s conservativism) appear to multiply over time, leading to two further conversations:

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 would care to count.”
Aveline: “Doesn’t that bother you?”
Isabela: “Why should it? They don’t know me. I know me.”


Aveline: “You’re right.”
Isabela: “About?”
Aveline: “About knowing who you are. 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: (lightly) “‘Shut up, whore.'”
Isabela: “That’s my girl.”

My mouth fell open. There are many things I’ve come to expect out of well-written games, including female characters I can occasionally identify with, but to my recollection none of those games prior to this one involved an open discussion of finding one’s self-esteem. That’s the stuff of educational games and expressly feminist independent titles, or so had been my experience up to then. In a game absolutely rife with uncommonly complex messages and nuanced characterization, it still managed to blindside me.

Dragon Age II accomplishes many things we don’t frequently find in games, not the least of which being that it still somehow manages to be fantastic despite harboring the kind of objective flaws which would destroy lesser games. One thing it does particularly well is in placing women into all kinds of roles: antagonists and allies, moral and corrupt figures, women with multiple sides to their personalities who, though they exist in a world that is explicitly more gender-blind than our own, face the kind of recognizable issues that real women can relate to. Isabela isn’t the kind of character I would normally find myself identifying with at all, and yet through the game’s deft writing she’s become the sort of role model I can happily aspire to.

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