Fantasy stories are the stuff of legend, but how do we handle classic stereotypes which harm and demean? Today, we attempt to keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater.
Dear DovahQueen: I’m GMing Shattered Star and we’re having a ball. However, a prominent villain is a hyper-sexualized female. How would one deal with a character that embodies a classically problematic archetype in pretty much every way? I really don’t want to demonize the character’s gender, sexuality, or even her exhibitionism.—Starforge
Dear Starforge: You’re right to be thinking about such things. It is a well-acknowledged fact in traditional forms that art is not created in a vacuum; it embodies, symbolizes, and reflects much of the culture in which it is borne. Shattered Star came out in 2012, and while that was only 7 years ago, we as a culture have progressed our understanding of the human condition considerably since then. This culture of 2019 is not the same culture of 2012. I’ve been seeing a lot of conversations around the community about addressing “classically problematic” tropes. There are a lot of good arguments to pull them from our stories entirely, and I also fully understand the myriad of reasons to leave such stereotypes in our narratives as written. As usual, I believe that the best course of action is quite nuanced.
In order to figure out the best way to handle this, let’s talk about how a “hyper-sexualized female” can be a problematic villain. The devil is in the details. On one hand, there’s (obviously) nothing wrong with a) being a woman, b) being sexual, and c) being all about it. From a literary standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with writing a villain (or hero) who is also these things. The problem arises when a character is *merely* these concepts. If being sexy, enjoying whoopi, and doing bad things encompasses the entire character, then the character isn’t finished. Having only those few things to work with as she’s being roleplayed is going to encourage some problematic (and cringy) moments. I’m not saying to suddenly have her develop an interest in football but start trying to think about the character more as a person with deeper motivations for happiness and contentment than just doing crime and banging all the time. This matters because behavior becomes woefully problematic when it isn’t fully understood. A woman isn’t considered valuable in our society when she sleeps with a lot of people because our society chooses to misunderstand her, but if you can reshape her narrative into a multi-faceted woman who reclaims her own power in a society that otherwise would render her powerless, then you’re starting to un-stereotype her. When you place the fact that she’s a powerful self-made woman above the fact that she’s a coital connoisseur, you’re better able to approach her behavior in-game.
On the topic of her behavior, I’m gonna say not to remove the sexy stuff from the game. She doesn’t need to be all, “Greeting adventurers, here are my tits!”, but she can definitely still manipulate and beguile the PCs in a manner that only a buxom character can. Consider using forms of seduction and trickery that are subtle or unseen. Respect the woman while confounding the heroes, but without hiding who she is. I don’t think this is an easy thing to explain so let me try to paint the picture since I know which character you’re talking about. Since this character proudly displays nude statues of herself all over public spaces, consider introducing it like so. “A life-size, marble statue of a beautiful woman bereft of attire rests prominently in the city square. The powerful look of this imposing statue washes over you and demands respect.” Don’t hide the fact that she’s a gorgeous woman, but it’s not what needs to be focused on. Center on her power. The same goes for interactions with the heroes. Mention the bits of sexuality that are relevant but focus on the intention and powerplay.
While it’s important to carefully frame the narrative style for issues that can potentially cause problems, it’s also important to remember that this is a game. Even though I think that stereotypes and tropes need to evolve past their basal iterations, it’s not up to me to determine how everyone receives a story. Each group and each GM needs to decide how much cultural baggage they want to take on. Topics of race, gender, oppression, and sexuality impact real people in real ways. Some folks want to sit down and huck d20s at a dragon without encountering real-world problems from their daily lives, and that’s a fair and valid desire. The GM has to carefully weigh each controversial subject against the knowledge of their own players to decide how best to run (or avoid) such things as needed. Handcrafting a game is the first job of the GM anyway; choosing to *not* tailor the game to the players is frankly the kind of GMing I expect from amateur hour.
I guess there’s a few things it all really boils down to for nearly any subject. Do your best to understand; respect; and empower people, do your best to understand what makes a trope harmful, and do your best to tailor the game to your players as individuals. Cut what needs to be cut. Salvage what can be salvaged. Make sure all involved are having a good time.
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