Girl Out of Games: The Cloying Dominance of the Fragile Woman Archetype

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Girl Out of Games: The Cloying Dominance of the Fragile Woman Archetype

I’ve had a possibly contentious statement stuck in my head today, and the more I turn it over and over, the more true I think it is. And the more true I think it is, the more hesitant I am to share it due to the very nature of why it’s true. Yet, I know that if I don’t share it, it’ll wear me down and frustrate me until I can think of nothing else.

The statement is this: Women working in artistic/creative fields today have it worse than we ever have.

I’m sure plenty of men will nod along to this, having read all manner of horror stories involving women (particularly in games, where I work) being harassed, victimized, belittled or abused. I’m sure plenty of women will nod along too; however, like me, they’ll be following it up with a “but…”

The reason I believe the statement has little to do with the tales of harassment and abuse that we all read about, and many of us live. Men who hate women have always existed, as have women who enable those men. The issue I have with being a woman in today’s creative field isn’t just the ever-present risk of men who’ll be offended by our presence. The issue I have is with a very particular, very modern trend which results in women being held back. And this trend particularly comes from the progressive quarters who, earnest in their belief that they’re helping, wax lyrical about the struggles of women to be taken seriously as artists.

So here is my issue. Being a female creator today is presented as a universally terrifying, life-ruining, soul-destroying career. With a raised awareness of problems women face comes an identity ascribed to us; that of victim, of “other,” that of A Female Creator, rather than “a creator (who is female).” We are portrayed, by the media and culture that supports us, as anomalies. Strange, brave women who endure terrible hardships, who struggle to succeed in our given career. And the struggle to succeed is key here; we are infrequently portrayed as people who DO succeed. We are portrayed as people who are struggling to against all odds. Odds which, the narrative frequently insinuates, will one day become too much for us.

Thanks to our culture’s new-found obsession with the Female Creator as a Target, we are rarely allowed to succeed or do our jobs while receiving the same praise, condemnation, criticism or lyricism of our male counterparts. We are That Woman, a strange and courageous figure who stands for Something. Except that something is rarely our own work, our own chosen achievements. Heavily weighted is the narrative in expecting us to fail, with the solution seeming to be that everyone wrings their hands when one of us does succumb, with platitudes of “oh, how terrible.” We are built up to be cautionary tales and horror stories; we are not build up to succeed, and to overcome our trials while still retaining a successful career. And this is a false narrative; every woman, when deciding to be a public creator, has already mustered the strength to overcome many of the difficulties that being a public-facing woman in the arts faces. None of these struggles are new to us. This surge in awareness should—and must—not suggest itself to be educational to the women of whom it is about.

This slant, too, leads to a serious imbalance in the women who society and culture do allow to continue in their careers with the necessary support. Not only is it expected of us to deal with the everyday struggles of being a female public creator, but also to constantly talk about it. We are expected to have two careers—one being our chosen career, and one being a spokeswoman for how terrible and impossible it is to pursue our chosen careers. As such, the majority of support and coverage goes only to the women with the energy to do both, a handful of women approved by the media that socially and financially thrives on these stories. And that’s not to say these women are villains; far from it. They’re talented, strong women with plenty of value to say, who simply possess a level of strength that those like me do not. And it is not that these women fail to acknowledge this. They often compensate for or signal boost the rest of us. It’s just that the narrative fails to encompass this. For those of us who are disabled, or neuroatypical, or transgender, or women of color—those of us dealing with major other marginalizations beyond our gender—is it any wonder we rarely have the energy to do that? And is it any wonder that a woman might abandon her career, not due to the trials she knew before starting that she would face, but due to the stonewall support network loudly claiming to support her while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge her achievements, or often her existence at all? Most of us do not want our identities distilled down to simply the bravery we might display from the very act of doing our job. It’s a narrative that almost entirely ignores female achievement, and at worst often erases it.

The cloying dominance of the Victimized Woman archetype is such that we are expected to fail. And when we don’t, the narrative does not know how to compensate for this. Strong women who achieve things in the arts are simply dismissed as anomalies. They do not fit into the media narrative of the woman running scared from her hardships, and thus they cannot be allowed to exist within the support network designed around it.

One could argue that a successful woman doesn’t need this support, but that’s flawed logic in a number of ways. For one, success has no bearing on the required emotional support one might need to persevere in life. You only need to look at stories of troubled creatives whose lives are snuffed out at the peak of their fame to realize this. On another hand, how do you measure success in these terms?

I would consider my career in game development and literature to be successful currently. I am exceptionally proud of both my prose fiction and my catalogue of games. Yet, I make almost no money from it. Richard & Alice sold nicely, but Charnel House, which I put some of my own money into as well as a small publisher advance, will only be earning me money from 2016. Until now, I haven’t earned a penny from it. The timeline would be more positive if not for unfortunate publisher bankruptcy and lost revenue during the exact period when the game really started selling well, but still. The point is, I consider the game a success in that I’m very proud of it, very proud of our customer feedback, and very proud that around 10,000 people have seen fit to buy it, all outside of bundles. But my personal success doesn’t put food on the table, and doesn’t negate my need for commercial and emotional support, both as a creator and as a female creator. I rarely receive coverage or acknowledgement of being a woman who’s fought hardship to achieve a modicum of success, and while I’m often unable to expend energy on talking about it, I’ve endured more than my fair share of hardship. And this is not just about me feeling unsung or self-pitying; I can name scores of women in the same boat as myself, many of whom are far more deserving of support than I, who receive considerably less than I do. And of course, failing to support women because they’ve achieved something leads to our inability to continue achieving. We have finite energy with which we can fight, and the structure that leads to female achievement being erased, or women being ignored if they’re able to fight to succeed, is astronomically draining. When the narrative tells our allies that those of us simply out there, surviving, doing our jobs flat out don’t exist, it’s an extra thing to have to muster the energy to fight against.

So, too, as I see my peers subject to erasure do I regularly see the erasure of successful women from the past. So caught up are we in the hardships of the gender, and so swayed by the romanticized (and often factually incorrect) sexism applied to past eras, it’s easy to forget that women have been succeeding in the arts for centuries. The example that has been most jarring for me in recent months is my research into female ghost story writers of the Gothic and Victorian eras. Every single book I’ve read has begun with a preface stating how, in modern times, the given female author’s works have been mysteriously overlooked, whereas at the time they were celebrated. It came to me that this isn’t a mystery at all; we’re so obsessed with The Woman as a struggling, victimized artist that we simply cannot allow the events of the past to encroach on our orchestrated present.

Women like Mary Bowden, Edith Wharton, Edith Nesbit, J.H. Riddell: in their day, they were not curios, a handful of women who defied all odds. They were among a vast audience of their female peers; at one point in the Victorian era, women dominated the novel market by a majority of well over 50%. And this simply couldn’t have happened if each and every woman was expected to dedicate half of her public image to being a spokeswoman for Female Writers. This demand, and the degree to which our support hinges on it, thins out our ranks dreadfully. This is a serious problem. “Supporting women in the arts” should not be having the effect of dissuading us.

So this romanticized erasure of historical women not only whitewashes their achievements, but disallows us from having role models and aspirations based on women who came before us and achieved what they set out to do. It isolates us; it’s an incredibly lonely, unwelcoming atmosphere. Not only are we forbade from acknowledging our predecessors, but we’re put to work competing with our peers to be allowed into the handful of Approved Women, who are presented as the only ones achieving anything. Rather than bringing women together, it forces a divisive wedge between us, thus limiting our support network even more than it already is.

So what’s the answer? Of course, it is not to stop highlighting the trials women face, or failing to support us because of our gender. There are struggles one deals with As a Woman, and it’s necessary and important to highlight these. But the answer is, I believe, to regard both female hardship and achievement as an objective historical case study. Lose the sensationalism, the desire to raise a specific woman onto a pedestal as The Strong One. Understand that to be a public-facing woman creating art is a struggle, one that all of us face and know we face the moment we decide to embark upon that career. The answer is to learn and understand what it actually means to be a woman in the arts in all regards; our successes, our failures, our hardships, our triumphs. Choosing to support only the women with the energy to jump through increasingly contrived hoops is not a support network. It’s asking us to perform for you. Drop the criteria you require before you support women, which in many ways is more bizarre, restrictive and oppressive than it’s ever been. Support our achievements, with a footnote about what we might have endured to achieve them. And allow us to celebrate the fact that plenty of women don’t get scared off, don’t get worn down, and do achieve, both now and then.

The way things are going right now, more and more women are going to burn out and give up. Misogyny and harassment is something we sadly know to prepare for, and all attempts at challenging it are welcome. But when progressive society’s attempts at supporting women are actually alienating, draining and erasing us, well, something obviously has to change.

Olivia White is one of the people that make up Owl Cave, the adventure game dev studio responsible for Richard & Alice and The Charnel House Trilogy. You can find her at @owlcavedev or on the web at