Sexism in Dragon Age: The Difference Between Intent and Negligence

There’s nothing worse than radio silence surrounding a game’s release date. During this time, developers usually spend their time trying to build up hype and answering whatever questions they can concerning aspects of the game they’re allowed to talk about, from expected tweaks to the gameplay mechanics to things players can look forward to in terms of characters and environments. So taking into account this “no news is bad news” mantra of sorts surrounding release, what’s a little controversy on the side?

Very early this week, a submission on Dragon Age Confessions expressed disappointment with the in-game world of Thedas concerning the state of sexism especially as it applies to the women of the series. As someone who has played through the game a touch more than several times, I empathize with this kind of sentiment, and it appears that the submitter and I were not alone; several other people joined in the comments with their own opinions concerning this reflection of this sadly still familiar social state. However, as with most discussions, there were some who disagreed. The most notorious of these was David Gaider, whom I’ve talked about before and appreciate from one slightly dry person to another. Responding to a discussion concerning this, he stated,

“The description you (and some others) are referring to says “men and women are generally equal in Thedas”. You can ignore the “generally” if you wish, but you really shouldn’t. There are plenty of places in the setting where that’s demonstrated to not be true. There are also plenty of places where it is. Men and women are generally equal in Thedas, certainly far more than they were in our own historical medieval period, and the idea of femininity in Thedas covers far more aspects than simply nurturing (spirituality, for instance).” (x)

Though I personally believe a justifiably large chunk of the anger over these sentiments stemmed from Gaider’s flippant comment in an earlier response—“Are there people under the impression we were aiming for a sexism-free setting?”—the distaste towards sexism in our historical fiction isn’t something that should be ignored.

Should a setting get a bye on its sexism simply because it pulls from medieval elements? No. In fact, this kind of narrative laziness is something we should be challenging in our media. As Anita Sarkeesian mentioned in the second part of her Tropes vs Women In Video Games series under the topic of “Women as Background Decorations”:

“…[W]hen someone complains that a medieval fantasy world does not feel “realistic” without the ugly oppression, dehumanization, and violation of women as a standard background element, what they are saying is that those details feel right to them.  That the world, without that misogyny, is not emotionally satisfying.  They are saying they need that there for the world to make sense.” (x)

Sexism is an inescapable part of our lives, but it says a lot about the current opinion of women when we have difficulties viewing media as “realistic” when misogyny at any level is a non-issue; especially concerning historical settings. The elements that separate the modern era from medieval times—or any other historical time—should be based more on technology and the aesthetic of the time. Relying on sexism to prove some sort of historical accuracy is lazy because it requires no thought on the part of the audience or the writers, and gives both a kind of pat on the back because wow, look how far we’ve come from those barbaric times, right?

However, even if I were willing to agree with the “but history tho” argument, within Dragon Age’s lore it feels as though the perceptions of gender and sexism are more at odds with the in-game writing than they should be. So, what does the lore of the universe actually tell us in terms of the sexism in Thedas? Mostly that this sexism focused toward women shouldn’t be as entrenched as the writers would have you believe. And like many other works of fiction, Dragon Age, too, suffers from the problem of prejudices being imported from our real world rather than being organically developed in-universe.

The Bride of the Maker, Andraste, looking a little less warrior-like than her history would have you believe.

The Bride of the Maker, Andraste, looking a little less warrior-like than her history would have you believe.

I do think one of the strongest points against in-game writing going against established lore has to do with the major religion of the universe: the Chantry and its prophet/Jesus-figure, Andraste. However, as I’m nowhere near being a religious scholar, I find myself at a loss for explaining exactly how the rise of Catholicism in the real world mirrors and veers from the similar rise of the Andrastian religion in Thedas. Luckily, Tumblr user thedragonthateatsitstail has a wonderful post explaining just this very issue. They state,

Thedas is unique because their religion is modeled as “what if Jesus was a Warrior Woman”? Andraste does not fit any of the tropes our Abrahamic religions suffer from.  Andraste was a warrior woman, a leader, a mother, and a murderer.  She was not pure, was not valued on the children she bore, and was not perceived as any less of a woman for wielding a sword.  In fact, she entered what can at best be acknowledge as polyamorous, at worst adulterous, relationship with the Maker with her husband perceived as the Judas at the table.

I highly recommend reading the rest of thedragonthateatsitstail’s post for (cited!) comparisons between the two religions. Based on the development of Andrastian teachings—from the warrior woman who freed the elves under the thumb of the oppressive Imperium to the martyr whose death quashed the further rise of the Imperium—there is no reason why a trend of women being discriminated against should have even started, at least in the areas where Andraste’s legacy was strong.

Dragon Age Fereldan BarbariansOne of the most notable places where Andraste’s influence is clear is in the lands of Ferelden, and since Dragon Age: Origins takes place completely within Ferelden borders, it seems like a fair place to see how the events in-game were actually affected by this out-of-game figure. Fereldens themselves were born of several barbarian clans, and it was thanks to these clans that Andraste had a formidable army to go against the Imperium. It is implied that women and men had equal value within these barbarian clans, but there’s essentially nothing to go off of concerning the treatment of the genders that far back in history.

However, the values which were important back then have been carried onto the more recent generations of Fereldens. An excerpt from The World of Thedas: Volume One states that “[i]n Ferelden, strength and courage are set about heritage and wealth. Any Fereldan man or woman worth their salt can make something of themselves. …Respect must be earned.” Statements like this seem to make clear that women and men are not judged on their gender, but in what they achieve—which fits in with the whole barbarian mindset.

If these barbarians followed the warrior Andraste, were able to break free of Orlesian rule under the banner of the rebel queen Moira Theirin, and had a culture where women warriors continued to be as prevalent as women in any other profession, why is it that when a female player character goes to join the Grey Wardens, one of the first interactions she has is with someone who, when asked what he expected the new recruit to be, says “Not a woman. Yet here you are.” Ferelden’s history is full of warrior women; why the fuck would this be a surprise? And almost immediately after, the female warden gets told that she’s “pretty for a warden”—an order which has its share of famous warrior women as well. These are small things, but in the scope of how Ferelden should have progressed, these read more as internalized sexism on the part of the writers than the true thoughts of a born and raised Ferelden.

Thedas is not contained entirely in Ferelden, though, and I would be remiss not to mention one of the lands where women were supposed to have more power: Rivain. As Gaider mentioned in his earlier comment, femininity within the Dragon Age universe seems inherently linked with spirituality. This seems clear enough with Andraste’s history and the presence of women in power within the Chantry (church); however, even without the influence of the Chantry, magic-driven Rivain manages to be the only matriarchy that is spoken about. While Rivain truly is great in terms of what it supposedly allows its women to grow up with—power, sexual liberation, respect—the fact of the matter is we don’t see that in-game. For one, the player never gets to go to Rivain: something I hope changes in Dragon Age: Inquisition. More importantly, the player only gets to experience Rivani culture through the eyes of people who don’t have anything good to say about it. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it seems strange to me that only the matriarchal society is viewed through such a harsh lens. Even Par Vollen, land of the unwavering Qunari, is given a chance to seem as a place where good people can come from—although the Qunari are disliked, it can be argued that the societal-religious practices of the Qun are beneficial for some people; just not in DA2’s Kirkwall. Still, when bringing up Rivain and all its feminine spiritualism, the one person who actually comes from the culture itself, Isabela, paints a picture of Rivain being filled with nothing but spiritual weirdos and charlatans. Isabela doesn’t have good memories of her homeland, but you would think there’d be one person who would speak of Rivain as fondly as some speak of Antivia (the land practically run by an assassin’s guild).

Raise your hand if you actually remember that Duncan is as Rivani as Isabela.

Raise your hand if you actually remember that Duncan is as Rivani as Isabela. In-game sexism or poor writing?

It is not, by any means, a bad thing to have a work of fiction try to tackle the issue of sexism, or portray it as being existent. This is not what I’m trying to argue here. Rather, the problem that I and many other Dragon Age fans have is that the lore of the universe seems to only have an effect on the in-game writing when the writers feel like it. Though there’s a lot of lore for this series, and in the face of tight production dates, fact-checking may be easy to forget about, but the writing team should be taking more time to recognize when pieces of the lore just aren’t meshing with the in-game text

Yet it feels like the team simply slapped the values inherent in our world onto the culture of Thedas, and given its history, that’s just not something that can be done. Though Inquisition is the last game in the series, I really do hope the Bioware writing team took the time to make some things more clear and paid a bit more attention to the beautiful, expansive lore they already created, and that they continue engaging in these discussions with the fandom. I will additionally continue to hope that these discussions can be had without as much defensiveness on the part of the writers. Certainly they know what they intended, but if this many people are having issues, it’s time to step back and see if these intentions clearly shone through in the writing. It’s time to listen, and it’s time to grow.

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4 thoughts on “Sexism in Dragon Age: The Difference Between Intent and Negligence

  1. Bit late (I know), but I think that Inquisiton did a lot. Maybe not specifically for feminism, but generally I was quite pleased with the equality and such. For example, women were seen topless: either a crude attempt for the straight male demographic, or an actual feminist aspect. Also there were the whole homosexuality and bisexuality and pansexuality romances that were available, which, at least in Dorian’s case, combated homophobia, and as a gay-ish 14-year-old, I thought was a nice message. Most of the women in the game were strong and well-built, and I can’t think of an example of a ‘damsel-in-distress’ archetype. I know that the other games were pretty bad at all of this, but I think it’s a nice addition to the page that they tried to make amends in a later game.

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