Double standards are everywhere in geek cultures. Most of them are easy to spot in such things as clothing and armor options for genders. Such standards extend into character archetypes as well. A very well known trope that is often reserved specifically for women is the Damsel in Distress trope. We’re all familiar with this, but one character archetype that seems to skip women is the Jerk With A Heart of Gold.
This example is all over the place for men: Walter White from Breaking Bad, practically every playable character from Grand Theft Auto, etc. These characters may have some redeemable qualities or good motivations, but their overall demeanor is rather negative. Maybe they commit crimes to get to their goal rather than using more savory techniques. In the case of Breaking Bad, Walter White is a drug dealer, but the audience still wants things to go well for him.The GTA protagonists are hardcore criminals who commit murder on a regular basis, among other crimes. In this case, the audience may feel a connection to the protagonist because they are the playable character; it makes a certain amount of sense to sympathize with the entity on the other side of the controller. However, this can’t be the only explanation.
Negative qualities aren’t confined to criminal characters, though. Tony Stark is a great example—he’s very reckless and is often condescending and rude. Despite this, it’s undeniable that he is a crowd favorite. This strikes me as odd, because I can’t imagine why we all like a character that acts this way. Specifically, the dissonance with accepting these characters is that it only applies to fictional characters. To put it another way, most people wouldn’t accept this behavior in real life, much less cheer it on. If your boss or co-workers spoke to you how Tony Stark does, it probably wouldn’t be enjoyable. In fact, many people would put in some effort to have them removed from the office. Dr. House and many incarnations of Sherlock Holmes tend to have the same affliction.
To refocus, the prevailing double standard here is that male characters are given a pass to act however they choose, but female characters who behave this way are not. The men that act this way are “badass”, but the women that do are referred to by much more derogatory terms. This attitude, unfortunately, seems to stem from reality. There’s a societal expectation for women to be nice and pleasant that doesn’t seem to be in place for men. This is most likely what causes different comedians to experience different reactions. It is why Ellen DeGeneres is considered funny and charming, but Sarah Silverman gets criticized for being rude and sarcastic—all while Daniel Tosh is praised for a style similar to Silverman’s.
My problem with this double standard, and why I choose to request more mean female characters than fewer mean male characters, is that it limits the amount of stories that can be told. When Grand Theft Auto 5 was released, there was a sizable discussion about the idea of a female playable character. There were multiple characters to use this time around, but all three of them were men. Why not a woman? Eventually people started asking: how would the game change if you played as a woman? Many said it wouldn’t make much difference; you could still commit the same crimes, etc. And while I agree that they could make a woman just as physically and mentally capable as the men, the game, at least in terms of plot and character interactions, should most certainly change. In some games, certain nonplayable characters will have specific reactions depending on what character you’re using. As a fantasy example, if there is a character who hates magic users, they may not sell items to your mage. If games want to take any sort of realistic approach to writing, it must be considered that our treatment of genders is far from equal. This isn’t fair, but that’s my point. The nonplayable characters would likely treat a female character differently than its male counterpart, which could lead to branching events and storylines. I fully believe that women are capable of revenge, snarky conversation, and general reprehensible behavior; but I feel that there would be different range of motivations for the playable characters available because of this. A plot wouldn’t have to be about trying to (re)assert masculinity. Women can pull off the same feats as their male counterparts, but they shouldn’t just be men with a female model swap.
This train of thought leads to ask: what if there was a female GTA protagonist? What if Tony Stark the weapons dealer was a woman? How would the public react to this? As previously stated, there is a societal conditioning to think less of women who are powerful and arrogant enough to declare themselves the most powerful person in the world. I would like to believe that the public not only could handle such a character, but would enjoy and appreciate one.
Let me be perfectly clear here: I’m not talking about women as villains. We have plenty of evil female characters. (It would be nice to see some that aren’t strictly defined by their sexuality, though.) I’m referring to characters who get to be an unrelenting jerk that we still cheer for. Additionally, these characters shouldn’t be the same tired tropes we’ve seen before such as Evil Seductress or Straw Feminist, which are women who use their sexuality to bring men down and women who are the man-hating feminist stereotype, respectively. They should be well-rounded with various thoughts and ideas, and if they lean a bit more towards evil than good, that should be all right. They should get to be strong and brave, etc, but also have fun and be selfish.
As I said, I’m not saying the character archetype should be done away with. Honestly, sometimes it is fun to play the jerkass and get away with it. Plus, these characters, more often than not, exist in real life. We’ve all met snarky or selfish people of any gender; why not show that in our games? I just think it would be nice to have the opportunity to see this path outside of the male gaze. This would work on two accounts: Women would appreciate being able to see and play as women who were not just Noble Mothers or Supportive Girlfriends, and men would learn a lot from a well-written female lead who just happens to like being a jerk more than being polite.