The Issues Of Modern Female Character Design

“All Female Characters Need To Look Cute”

Female Character Design

We could have seen a much cooler looking Tae, but no.

For those who aren’t aware, The Art of Persona 5 book was just released in the US. While many fans are likely rejoicing (who wouldn’t be, the Persona games are amazing) there’s some troubling developments coming from the book that raise questions about design choices for certain characters. Female characters, to be specific.

In a quote from Shigenori Soejima, character designer for the third, fourth, and fifth Persona games, we learn that Tae Takemi from Persona 5 originally had a very different look. The character originally featured “murderous” eyes and an all around unapproachable demeanor. This was nixed, however, when Director Katsura Hashino stated the following: “All female characters should basically be on the cute side.” As a result of this, the design for Tae was softened to ultimately be more appealing.

Now, this by itself doesn’t sound too bad, right? Hashino isn’t being directly offensive, after all, and it’s not as though he’s demanding the characters be extraordinarily, mind blowingly, unattainably “hot”. So what’s the big deal? Well, in the end, Hashino’s comment is very indicative of female character design problems in the industry at large. Needless to say, while we are slowly inching toward less than the standard in terms of the conventionally attractive and that representation, the medium still has a long way to go. These design choices, and those similar to them, greatly hurt the industry in terms of that representation.

Do Female Lead Games Make Less Money?

Female Character Design

Zarya from Overwatch fits almost zero beauty standards, but she’s a small selection of playable female game characters that fits this category.

It’s no secret that the video game industry has a major issue with female representation. Say what you will about the amount of female characters that games like Overwatch receive, or insanely popular female protagonist lead games like Life is Strange. The amount of games that don’t allow you to create your own character still predominantly feature male leads, and these games are still the majority. Furthermore, they are more often that not white male leads. WOC (women of color) protagonists exist, but are even rarer. Add to this that when you see most of the women featured in these games, you’ll notice one thing: nearly all of them are the standard definition of “attractive”. Button noses, slim yet slightly muscled physiques, tight fitted clothes, white, and so forth.

The fact is that many women don’t look like that, myself among them! So why are we putting in the effort to make women in games not look like the women that play them? For these answers, we’re going to have to take a closer step toward the reasons that are given for not having female protagonists at all.

One of these answers (I use the word “answer” loosely here) is marketing. In instances like the BioShock: Infinite debacle, where Elizabeth was not featured on the game’s front cover despite being a major character, cover appeal is a giant factor that is considered in this decision. It is inherently believed by developers, publishers, and marketers alike that games featuring female leads sell badly, and by that estimate are not wanted by the consumer. Yet it is also true that games with female leads receive less funding for marketing than their male lead counterparts. Who then is to be believed?

But Why Do Almost All Characters Have To Be “Sexy”?

Female Character Design

On the left we have Shelob as she as known throughout Lord of the Rings lore. On the right we have…whatever this is. “Pretty” Shelob. Whatever.

So now we know that just getting female characters into games is hard enough already. Developers have confessed to having to fight tooth and nail to do so, such as in the case of Jean-Max Moris of Dontnod Entertainment (Remember Me, Life is Strange). Yet just getting them into games, and having them be front and center is just half the battle. Or, maybe 40% of the battle. Now what happens when we want to have women that are conventionally unattractive? Well, that’s a bit more of a push apparently. For starters, it seems that not having attractive female characters is nigh impossible, even when the characters aren’t supposed to be sexy.

For example, Monolith’s latest release Shadow of War transforms Shelob from giant spider extraordinaire to sexy dark female. Now, reasons about her being a god or “godlike” were floated as excuses for this transformation, but why was it necessary? The player base is dealing with a giant spider, why not leave her as such? Isn’t she more interesting as a spider? Or is it because her manipulation attempts, her ability to be sympathetic, her relatable-ness, are more likely if she’s attractive? Is she more valued because she’s attractive?

This is ultimately the crux of the issue. In the end, a female character is taken more seriously when she’s attractive over when she isn’t. Her words, her actions, all of these command more respect if she’s beautiful, because her value is perceived as higher.

Not to go too far off on a tangent here, but to make matters worse, Shelob’s entire storyline is based off of vengeance at having become a jilted lover of Sauron’s during the second age. Ergo, her whole storyline is basically revolving around a man. Great.

But Why Is This Bad?

Female Character Design

The evolution of Cortana over the course of the Halo series. Her updates apparently increased certain – ahem- assets.

One could argue that hypersexualization of female characters has declined since the nineties, and said person would be correct. Outside of fighting games like the Dead or Alive series and Mortal Kombat, hypersexualization is going down. But that’s not the argument here. The argument is that women, when allowed to be in video games and are in positions of import, must be attractive. Or at the very least “cute”. This is also disguised as “approachable” from time to time. It’s why Shelob has a human form and why Mileena wears a face mask most of the time. Sure, Miranda Lawson can be a hard up bitch, but her tight bodysuit and three inch heels still gives you enough courage to go up to her and choose the renegade option. It doesn’t hurt that she was genetically modified to be who she is, because women like that never occur naturally (minus the biotics, obviously). I’m not saying that sexy female characters are inherently bad, mind you.

In fact, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Believe it or not, women enjoy power fantasy narratives as much as men do – and we often like making characters that look nothing like ourselves to further this fantasy. But the fact that these are more often than not the only kinds of female characters we see is disheartening. I’m a white woman who is slightly overweight, insanely awkward, overexcitable, but still often heavily burdened by bouts of social anxiety. How many video game characters out there represent me? I can’t even imagine what black, latina, asian, and indigenous women feel when they play games. Don’t even get me started on gay or trans women’s representation. Going down this list you’ll find less entries for each demographic, because they don’t fit the definition for attractive outside of fetishization.

To Make Women Objects Is To Make Them Not Matter

Female Character Design

Don’t even get me started on this garbage. You can stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, Kojima. Cotton breathes. She can at least wear a t-shirt.

If I’m still not making my point clear, here it is: if a desired identity is sacrificed for the sake of attractability, then we aren’t making these characters human. We’re making them objects. Objects that, even in their own stories, are relegated to the backs of game boxes (or erased entirely) for sales purposes. Objects that can be dressed up or down to our liking, but never have an ounce of depth to them – minus how deeply their pants ride into their crotch. Objects that can’t have stories that don’t revolve around the demographic of people those stories are trying to be sold to (men).

No one wants an object if it isn’t pretty, as in the case with most people. And that’s fine, if we were actually dealing with objects. But we aren’t. We’re dealing with the representation of human beings. Humans that make up a hefty portion of the video game market, and a growing portion of the industry, myself among them. Objectifying us is telling us we’re not people, or that our dollars don’t matter. And since it’s of a common consensus that our money is what talks for us, we’re now silenced because we’re not being given the chance to spend our money on anything other than what’s already being shoveled down our throats. Because publishers think we don’t want it. (This goes for men too, by the way. While there’s less objectification among male characters than female, this representation is damaging to all involved.)

In the end, it won’t really stop until the industry is called out for behaviors and directions like that of Hashino. While sexy can be okay, it shouldn’t be the norm. Women are varied beyond their body types, but physical appearance is still the only major consideration behind our design. After all, we can’t be objectified if we aren’t sexy, or at the very least, cute.


Beth Meadows
A graduate of Full Sail University in the field of Game Design, Beth currently works at a small game development studio as a QA Engineer (a fancy name for a QA Tester - which means she plays video games for a living). Beth is obsessed with Heroclix and loves all things BioWare. In her spare time she enjoys gaming, reading, writing, and playing with her dogs (yes, she's a crazy dog mom). She's also quite a big fan of sleeping and eating and is trying to figure out how to combine these abilities.

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