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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

[WoW] Blizz CAN write female characters, or, "Something about blind squirrels and nuts."

Over the past week Blizzard has caught more flak than a B-17 over some of their marketing of Warlords of Draenor at Blizzcon, and to be frank, it's not necessarily undeserved. One has to face that most of the promotional material is a sausage-fest. This doesn't mean that Blizzard is somehow a bad company or bad people, but when you give your community only limited information it should come as no surprise when the community assumes the worst. If I see someone throwing gasoline on my car I'm within the realm of reason to voice my concern even if they have some grand idea that isn't apparent yet.

Now, I am willing to go on faith and trust that if Blizzard says there will be amazing female characters, then they will deliver. Pandaria gave us dozens of great female NPCs such as Taoshi and Snow Blossom. I mean, it is problematic that the most heavily featured characters are all male (not withstanding Jaina and Vareesa making an appearance on the Isle of Thunder). Blizzard needs to step it up a little; they've shown us that they can write compelling women, now put the spotlight on them. Warlord's promotional material featured around 10 male characters. We know that Garrosh is the catalyst, and at this point it is very likely that Varian is going to be the major Alliance player. I am not sure what they'll do with Jaina given that she's gone ‘anti-Horde sociopath’. But I wouldn't be surprised to see her take on Garrosh's role as the corrupted badass who goes on a rampage the players have to stop. That or she’s going to generate a rift in the Alliance as some want to wipe out the Horde and others want peace.

But I digress, the point is that Blizzard can write female characters, so when it appears that they aren't going to it's a little like watching the "A" student get a "B"; it makes us worry. Actually as I sat and thought about it, there have been some great female characters that broke a few molds.

For example, Magatha Grimtotem, who is one of the most compelling villains in Warcraft if you ask me. One of the troubles of female villains is that they most often fall into one of four slots; the dominatrix, the brat, the “bitch”, and the poisoner. These are unofficial, terms I’ve heard coined elsewhere, but the vast majority of female villains are easily described as one of the four…and that’s disappointing.

The first is the "dominatrix," your typical Drow; generally showing skin, powerful, and teeming with sexuality. None of that is necessarily bad, but it is beyond overdone*. The brat is the spoiled,  rich, or powerful child who has lost her ability to empathize. The "bitch" is perhaps the most progressive in a way (though the bar is low), because it tends to be a woman who is self-actualized but might be abrasive beyond the setting's norm. The poisoner is the woman who doesn't use swords, she uses poison (literal or metaphoric) and other more cutthroat means to achieve her aims. It can be problematic or interesting depending on your perspective and the quality of the character, but it too is common. Magatha would fit well there, but she takes it a step further. Usually the implication is that the poisoner uses poison because she lacks the ability to fight in other ways, but Magatha is anything but powerless. She used poison only in a situation where it was necessary, not convenient. Her history tells us that she has been a powerful shaman from a young age, and she displays it both in game and in other stories. She can throw lightning bolts with the best of them, and while in the story she suffered a setback, I get the feeling she is anything but through. But what really made her interesting was that she did not need the actions of a male character to motivate her.
Pictured: Magatha about to heal the shit out of someone. Art by Genzoman
In contrast, Jaina spent most of WC3 following Arthas around with a bad case of "lost puppy" syndrome and turned putting him down into her raison d'etre. Sylvanas did the same with vengeance in place of compassion**. Magatha? She genuinely believes the Tauren are superior, and that they should rule the world.  Note the difference; her beliefs and goals are not reliant on the actions of a male character, she motivates herself. As I write this, I can't think of another female character in WoW whose motivation is not due to a male. Jaina, Sylvanas, Tyrande, Lilian Voss, Zaela, even Aegwyn; are all pushed to act because of a male character. It is certainly true that often we are motivated by the actions of another, but finding a female character who is acting on her own motivation in Warcraft is rare.

At a young age Magatha took power in her clan and earned the respect of the Grimtotem tribe; so much that they follow her devoutly. She had no problem getting in Cairne’s face about her beliefs, she effectively put Garrosh in command of the Horde, and she had no problem commanding soldiers during a coup. When her clan begins to show holes she gets rid of the incompetent even while captured by the Twilight’s Hammer. If anything, she plays the damsel in distress role because is averts suspicion from her, and has no trouble leaving it when through. Suffice to say, she has personal goals that are not tied to or caused by another specific character, much less a male one. She doesn’t fit perfectly into one female villain trope; she’s assertive and forward, but she can be subtle, she’s powerful, respected, and self-driven.

Magatha might not be the only one, but I think she’s a fantastic example of Blizzard’s ability to write a female villain.

* And is problematic because often the creator gives the perception that her power originates solely from her sexuality so once that is "conquered" she is powerless. 
** Arguably since Cata she’s become more self-motivated, but thus far the story has basically involved her setting herself up as Arthas’s replacement and being wanton evil, mainly due to emotional scars left by Arthas.


  1. OK, box just ate my comment and Im totally not typing all that again!

    The short: Blizzard isnt capable of diverse casting of characters.