Let’s be honest: it can be difficult being a woman in real life. Women are often judged more harshly for any perceived fault, and a moral failing is sometimes deemed unacceptable, when men are often forgiven or treated with more empathy when they misstep. This is (unfortunately) common knowledge if you’re familiar with any conversation about women in public spaces, and it’s no surprise that this also applies to fictional women.
Rewind: I’ve played Dragon Age II so many times that I don’t know if it’s more embarrassing to admit I was keeping count or to losing track. I know it’s not a perfect game. I know it had development issues. I don’t care. I love it, and I had some inkling as to why. Women are often the most important part of a franchise to me and DAII has them in spades, but I connected with a female Hawke particularly. My intense, rare fondness never made complete sense until recently.
I was talking with friends about the last time we saw a female character be permitted to be a complete disaster. As in, even when she does the right things, she also does a lot of the wrong things, no matter what choices the player makes.
Hawke was pretty much the only one that came to mind for me.
I think this is why Marian Hawke, the optional default lady protagonist of Dragon Age II, is so deeply, deeply important to me. (This obviously applies to all versions of Hawke, but Marian is a recognizable neutral point.)
Hawke is the kind of character I could imagine standing at the bridge and screaming, “You shall not pass!” She’s also personally responsible for a lot of the tragedy that befalls her adoptive home of Kirkwall. Whether she falls and rises again is irrelevant, almost, the fact that she’s allowed to fall is the important bit.
I love the new Lara Croft, but she’s not a narrative power fantasy for me or a character that is easy to relate to. As much as I love watching her shout, “I’m still alive!” at dudes twice her size just before she scrappily clubs them with an ice pick, I’m still left with some vague discomfort. The violence against her seems so real that it’s exhausting to imagine myself there. The mistakes she makes feel so extreme that she feels intense pressure to never make another.
Again, that’s legitimate, but it’s just a bit easier to watch Hawke hurl a fireball or drive her sword into a dragon before making a bad pun and a terrible choice; especially a terrible choice I could see myself making if I have only the information Hawke does.
Not only is Hawke a skilled mage/warrior/rogue, she forms deep connections with people who rely on her, or who she relies on, and she sometimes lets them down or raises them up. Marian is allowed to form relationships based on love and understanding, and she’s allowed to feel the pain as they’re ripped to shreds before her eyes and she struggles to rebuild them. She’s allowed to trust people, or not trust them, and in the end events play out more or less the same way.
Her narrative is not about gendered violence or impossible standards: it’s just about being a person with power and coping with loss in a world that doesn’t make either easy.
**warning: DA2 story spoilers ahead**
Ultimately, no matter how you play Hawke—diplomatic, sarcastic, or aggressive—there are some mistakes she always ends up making. No matter what, Hawke can never save her sibling in the beginning. No matter what, Hawke can’t keep her other sibling from either dying or being taken away later in the game. She can’t save her mother. She can’t stop the Qunari uprising.
She also can’t keep her friends from making all the horrible choices they make; she may be able to direct them, or help them do those things safely, but there’s a lot she can’t control. There are even some horrible things in the story that she is intimately responsible for. These are things that happen as a result of her lack of attention, or the depths of her love or hatred. Because she’s not the only person impacted by her choices, she gets a lot of narrative respect.
“The world will shake before you,” says the witch Flemeth when Hawke meets her again, and it’s true. The world does shake before Hawke, even when she’d really rather just have drinks with her friends.
A lot of female characters make mistakes, but few are as spectacularly overblown as Hawke’s.
Whether they are good, evil, or, God forbid, “whiny”, female characters are frequently carefully constructed. Sometimes, it’s too easy to see past the intent of their creators. I hate to admit it, but I sometimes don’t relate to female characters I should be relating to. A woman who has experienced male violence, a woman who struggles for every scrap of attention she gets, should be my experiences. Feminine but not too feminine, capable but not too capable, and the best they can be given their circumstances; this should be a relatable Female Experience.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but—bisexual, mentally ill me—I just don’t see myself there.
I’ve also heard people decry Marian Hawke’s narrative as a “masculine” narrative, and I ask them: what about her story is inherently masculine? Is it that she’s her family’s breadwinner? Is it that she takes the active role in her romantic relationships? That she’s an incredibly gifted mage/warrior/rogue? That her default has a pixie cut?
Or is it the mistakes she makes, the chaos she’s caught up in that she manages, embraces, or creates?
I propose that we’re still not comfortable with female characters that look at the fires popping up all around them and say, “This is fine.” If we examine the range of narratives and emotions that Hawke is allowed to experience, and think there’s something inherently ‘male’ about them, then I propose we need to reevaluate what stories we are allowing ourselves, as a storytelling culture, about women, and I believe Marian provides a wonderful roadmap for ways we may be able to expand that.
My takeaway, as a writer and a gamer, is this: let women have damage, let them make mistakes, and then let them trip, fall, and get back up again.