The Feminism of Legends

I consider myself a feminist.  In the proper company, I would not hesitate to characterize myself as a “radical feminist.”

But I must admit that there are times when the feminist paradigm is questionably applied.   Go Make Me a Sandwich is a blog that strives to critique gaming products from the feminist perspective, which is surely a sorely needed bit of feedback.  Some of its more recent assertions, however, have left me scratching my head.

In “League of Legends: So MUCH character design fail” the author voices her frustration with anatomically improbable character designs.  In doing so she makes a number of assertions that, upon closer examination, do not quite hold up.

“I might not be so annoyed if there were at least a good variety of designs. Only, there’s really not. Female LoL champions tend to come in one flavor: breastacular.”

Certainly there are a great many LoL characters designed with emphasis on their unnatural assets.

The other thing that really stands out to me when I look at these character designs is how incredibly unoriginal they are. Soraka is just a boobular draenai with a horn, Nidalee is a rip-off of Pathfinder’s iconic sorceress Seoni, Leona looks like female warriors from just about every kMMO ever, and Evelynn is a total Starfire knockoff. She even has red hair!

I have to say that the lack of originality is another mark against the character designs.

Given that League of Legends is meant to have immediately recognizable characters that are in essence stand-ins for more familiar, iconic characters (what TVTropes calls “Expy” characters), I personally can’t blame designers for going the generic route.  LoL is not about world immersion and questing; it is about nihilistic, largely mindless team violence dressed up as sport.  This particular critique, anyhow, falls in the realm of personal aesthetics and not in the realm of feminism.

Do pay attention, however, to this line:

Soraka is just a boobular draenai with a horn…

It’s a throwaway remark, but in her preceding article on League of Legends, the author writes:

Look at how far her spine is arched, and how far back the arm farthest from the “camera” is. I’m not sure that’s even possible without double-jointed shoulders. Anyway, we were feeling silly and decided to see if real humans could replicate the impossible spine arch of this pose

If we’ve realized that Soraka is not human (which indeed her backstory takes special pains to note, and which is emphasized by the giant horn on her head) then why would we assume that her joints are subject to human limitations?  Heck, if she’s based off of dranei, her knees don’t bend the normal way either!  I can understand objections to ridiculous attire and behavior in females, as they may train the mind to see such things as reasonable, and we may have a vested interest in preventing that, but surely we are not in danger of training people to think that their own elbows (which are, after all, identical for both genders) bend differently?

I can pronounce with some authority that if this character were sitting for a traditional portrait, there’s no effing way she’d be able to hold that pose long enough for her portrait to be painted.

Yes, well, she’s a) not human, and b) clearly in the middle of doing things. I see the magic lines as implying an action shot that happens to be rendered like a painting, like an anime still, not an attempt at an authentic painting that someone could plausibly be posed for.

with Orianna we’re getting ROBOT UPSKIRT which is about fifteen different kinds of stupid.

I mean, give me a fucking break

Maybe . . . this is just a thought, but maybe the robot isn’t best read strictly along the paradigm of “let us examine everything for sex appeal, and look no further”?  I mean, if we allow for some degree of verisimilitude, and the rest of the female outfits are largely “stripperiffic” (which is a valid concern), perhaps the artists were under the impression that this is what passes for normal clothing in the LoL universe.  In that case, wouldn’t a female robot designed in that setting emulate how females in that setting dress?  That’s not stupid in and of itself; it’s just consistent with a world of impractically skimpy clothing.

 And best of all, Kayle’s alternate design is also completely badass.


Seeing Kayle next to all of these other wannabes makes me so sad, because if characters like Kayle were the norm in gaming, you’d definitely see a lot more women joining the hobby.

Yes, brilliant . . . until we realize that Kayle looks like a man.  Is this an inadvertent slip?  In another article, the author writes about the game Dark Souls in a way that makes it clear it is deliberate:

I feel like I literally cannot express how much I love these designs and want this game to be a good game. I mean, holy shit, people! The women are wearing exactly the same outfits as the men. THE SAME. When does that happen? Never. Or almost never. I’m over the moon.

Your ultimate desire for women to attain power, equality, and recognition is to have them dress up like men?  How very Freudian, or more to the point, how very image-focused.*  Let me ask the question: is it more feminist to propose a world in which women must ape men in order to be recognized as fellow humans, or to propose a world in which a woman can kick ass even in a frilly pink skirt, if she so chooses?  Why is it that we are okay with the assertion that men must respect women regardless of their appearance (i.e. dressing slutty is no excuse for disrespect), and simultaneously hung up on the appearance of female characters (so their garb being too revealing is invariably a horrible failing on the part of designers)?

The author’s choice of ultimate examples underscores something very important she has forgotten: LoL characters must be immediately identifiable.  When that character is one inch tall on a screen, how will the gamer viewing it immediately identify class and gender?  Answer: heavy use of exaggerated stereotypes (mages get staffs and flowing robes, tanks like Kayle and Leona get swords and heavy armor, and so forth.  Note that amongst the men, very few wear heavy armor either, though there are far more close combat characters – their designs tend towards gladiatorial loincloths and heart protectors, the better to show off their muscles.)  In fact, that’s probably why there are such improbably large breasts: they have to be that large in order to register at all at the scale at which the game is played.

Is the author even aware of these practical considerations?

My only exposure to LoL is having watched my brother play a match one time, so I can’t say I’m too conversant with the game.

So, no.

Don’t get me wrong – there are ridiculous character designs in LoL.  Evelynn is a magical assassin stripper in high heels, for example.  (One of her voice-overs is, “It’s difficult to do this in heels.”)  But some of these criticisms just don’t stick, and I can only guess it’s due to the author’s lack of familiarity with the context.

*Now, if I were to critique League of Legends, I would focus on the actions and roles of the characters, and what those imply, as those tend to be rather more important.  Reviewing the female characters listed:

Soraka – magical healer
Sona – magical musician (really Hatsune Miku, but I assume they couldn’t swing the licensing.)
Katarina – mercenary assassin
Nidalee – huntress/trapper
Sivir – “huntress” but really a support unit
Akali – magic-using ninja
Morgana – mage (fallen angel)
Miss Fortune – hired gun
Kayle – knight in armor
Leona – knight in armor
LeBlanc – mage
Cassopeia – exotic, scantily dressed snake-woman mage
Evelynn – assassin/mage
Janna – mage
Caitlyn – sheriff with a rifle
Ashe – bow hunter (also, barbarian queen)
Vayne – hunter (crossbow)
Orianna – robo-girl
Irelia – soldier
Lux – mage
Karma – mage
Annie – mage
Trist – gunner
Poppy – knight in armor

Do we see a pattern here?  Of 24 women, only three are intended to be capable of going toe-to-toe with an enemy and fighting them in the traditional, culturally approved, “valiant” route.  An astounding eleven of them – nearly half – are mages of one stripe or another, and most that are not use guns or crossbows – weapons that do not rely on the user’s physical strength.  I would argue that this unnecessarily reinforces the stereotype, already present in fantasy, that women are always “weaker” and must rely more on cunning to win.  This, I think, is LoL’s greatest sin against feminism: in creating a world where many of the characters were not human, leaving them free to default to gender equality, they still opted to create characters that suggested females were physically disadvantaged compared to males.

Whew, that was long.  Now, I wonder if there are any disabled veterans’ advocacy sites complaining that Urgot’s image is unflattering to those with prosthetics.

Published in: on December 12, 2011 at 2:41 AM  Comments (8)  
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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Veigar, Zilean, Ryze, Karthus, Malzahar, Swain, Ezreal, Brand, Xerath, Twisted Fate, Vladmir – all mages
    Taric is a armored knight but is a healer
    Shaco, Talon, Kennen, Xin Zhao, Wukong – have to rely on stealth/cunning
    Heimerdinger, Teemo, Graves – armed with ranged weapons
    Singed – Uses *chemical weapons*.

    Then there’s Riven and Shyvana, who are two female warriors that were released after that was written.

    • Yes; I briefly thought of assessing the men using the same standards but the article was already way too long 😛

      Shyvana in particular is not bad on the feminism axis, but is a literal “dragon lady” which is questionable on the Orientalism axis.

      Thanks for the quick rundown!

  2. > Why is it that we are okay with the assertion that men must respect women regardless of their appearance (i.e. dressing slutty is no excuse for disrespect), and simultaneously hung up on the appearance of female characters (so their garb being too revealing is invariably a horrible failing on the part of designers)?

    As a feminist who has struggled with this seeming contradiction, I’ve thought long and hard about this particular question. The first part of the question – people (so, men AND women) should respect women regardless of their appearance – is definitely something I believe should be a universal behaviour. It seems that the second part – being “hung up” on the appearance of female characters that appear over-revealed – would be in conflict with this. However, the problem isn’t that the female characters are exposed or skimpily clad or what have you – it’s that their presentation is designed explicitly for the male gaze, rather than as something a female viewing the image might aspire to be.

    Disclaimer here – I have no knowledge of the characters or franchise being discussed. Your point about one of the female characters being not-human might be valid, i.e not being human, she shouldn’t be held to human standards of depiction. That said, can you honestly say that the design of that character was created in a vacuum, without thought to titillation or for the male gaze?

    • Just to clarify my last question further – that’s not meant to be a rhetorical question, it’s not intended to sound “can’t you obviously tell that the character is designed that way” – rather, I’m genuinely curious if you think that the character has been designed with full integrity; that whoever designed the character did so with the intent of creating a fully realised species – like, maybe the species evolved that way due to some natural selection process, or the creator honestly believes in the aesthetics of their design. But is your feeling that the creator made these decisions based on those reasons primarily? How is it that the creator, having the choice to create any sort of non-human species, somehow creates one that alludes to sexuality inherent in the human female form?

      • Well, this gets perhaps into whether you assume the worst or are willing to give the benefit of the doubt. I don’t blame people too much for being skeptical of what you call the “integrity of design,” as the gaming industry is notoriously pandering to the male gaze. Realistically if we create alien races there’s no reason to assume that we will get anything like human physiology. However, sex sells.

        But on the other hand, I don’t know if there is much point in always assuming the worst of everyone; that leaves no way forward, no middle ground. I understand that when characters are created there are multiple inputs into the design process, and artists may be asked to make their characters sexier or (in cases aimed at younger audiences) even tone it down a bit.

        “that whoever designed the character did so with the intent of creating a fully realised species”

        I’m willing to believe that at least one of the people involved in design had an honest intent to just make an identifiable female, yes. I’m equally willing to believe that at some point marketing intervened and told them to make a sexy female.

  3. isn’t this totally nitpicking? does it really change all that much? if more female chars relied on brute strength in games, will the women rejoice?
    the free hand of the market just works as it should…

    • If you agree that cultural archetypes form our unstated assumptions about the roles of men and women – in short, if you believe in sociology, gender roles, etc. – then it logically follows that these things are worth examining.

  4. Interestingly analysed. I have to admit, to see the power balance of the characters. Though I must say, it says a lot about the perceived balance. Whilst it does show that within the LoL universe they are perceived as physically weaker (I have to be honest, I haven’t played LoL so this is mostly a guess), they are also perceived as… more skilled? More suited for accuracy/cunning based positions?
    I do agree that costuming must be set for the universe, and if the men in the universe wear very little, it follows that the women of the universe will be too.
    It does say something about perceived gender roles though, however, I’d like to see the percentage and comparisons compared to the male characters too!

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