The Case of the Accidental Brunette

I got some interesting commentary and thoughts on yesterday’s post about the stereotype of the hot brunette, so rather than moving on to my next set of thoughts, I wanted to kick around some of the ideas that these comments sparked in my head today.

Andrea herself was very supportive (go follow her on Twitter, because she’s awesome), but only had a minor quibble: that the sexism is a by-product, rather than an intentional problem. This I absolutely agree with, which is why I changed direction halfway through my post and focused on the lazy stereotypes rather than the –isms. I don’t believe that the writers of these fictions are being intentionally sexist or any –ist, but it is one consequence of lazy stereotyping.

Jenn mentioned the stereotype of the ass-kicking woman over the woman that needs rescuing, and I think it’s a valid point. Andrea mentions in her presentation that when ARGs starting hitting the scene, it was around 2001 when shows like Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were making the rounds. That in itself is starting to become a stereotype, but that’s less of a concern. How such characters are usually portrayed in interactive fiction is that, while they are kicking ass, they can’t kick enough ass without your help, which unfortunately puts them back into the role of needing to be rescued in some form or fashion.

Jenn herself also admits to using the stereotype for a particular explicit effect, which I find interesting in conjunction with the belak_krin’s comments about archetypes over stereotypes. And there’s really a strong and compelling counterpoint there – a stereotype that it too different from expected behaviors becomes hard to recognize as an archetype, and archetypes are important in interactive fiction.

Let me digress for a bit before I address that. One thing I’ve learned in interactive fiction is that subtle character movements are harder to pull off. Whether it’s a large-scale LARP or working on an MMO, things need to be telegraphed a bit more. In my mind, I liken it to acting in a movie vs. acting on the stage: in a movie, things are large-scale, so subtle movements are easy to communicate, but on the stage acting needs to be broader, more sweeping, in order to communicate to the back row. For a variety of reasons, interactive fiction is the same – you have to project your characters more boldly and paint in broader strokes to convey things to the player, and archetypes are useful for this kind of broad-spectrum communication.

However, to get back to the point, I don’t think that this necessity of broad strokes should justify lazy stereotyping. In belak_krin’s specific example, the idea of the Sage character (or what Joseph Campbell calls “Supernatural Aid”) comes up in a lot of games. However, the Sage doesn’t have to be a older man with mysterious knowledge, nor does it need to be another intercom girlfriend. A good example is Assassin’s Creed II, where two characters actually fulfill the role – both a snarky British scholar (the Sage archetype) and a funny, supportive female hacker (the intercom girlfriend) guide the character simultaneously, and the dynamic between the two adds a new level to the guide role. It’s interesting, and it turns two different stereotypes into one interesting archetype.

Is it harder to find the balance between a boring stereotype and an interesting archetype while broadcasting the nuances of the character to an interactive audience? Hell yes it is. But doing the hard thing often means you’ll deliver a better product, and that’s important to writers and transmedia creators.1

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  1. It’s not as important to people who just make characters and stories for their own enjoyment, like in a traditional tabletop RPG. If you’re having fun and it works for you, that’s awesome. However, when you produce content for an external audience to consume, and when you want to do it well, you have to consider the value of doing it the hard way.