It was probably the highlight of my month when my mother stopped me on my way up the stairs and remarked just how many strong female characters there are in Dragon Age: Inquisition. We were both playing, and as early as she was in the game she’d already picked up on one of the big reasons that I hold the franchise so close to my heart. It’s not just that they’re strong, though. When we’re having these conversations about “strong” characters, it’s easy to forget that a strong character isn’t just one who kicks ass and stands on her own. “Strong” is not just the sum of her physical capability or willpower. A “strong” character, female or otherwise, should have nuance. They should have weaknesses in addition to their strengths. All characters should. They should not be a cardboard cut-out of heroism or villainy. That’s what Dragon Age has always done so well—it presents male and female characters that are simultaneously capable and flawed.
One of the best (and most overlooked) ways to present a well-rounded character is through their choice of clothing. The ability to, for a brief moment, convince the player that a character has a “choice” at all (rather than having those choices made for them by their creators at a development studio in Edmonton to match some sort of greater symbolic purpose) is powerful. And rare. Unfortunately what I’ve seen of Inquisition’s fashion in my 60+ hours of playing doesn’t come close to achieving this, particularly when it comes to one thing: Femininity.
That doesn’t mean that fashion is bad. This game is easily my favorite of the year, and its sense of style is a big part of why. The stronger presence of Orlesian culture evokes the height of French nobility in everything from its decadent styles to its despicably self-centered bourgeoisie. For me, one of the promises that overshadowed most of Inquisition’s early teasers was the promise of Orlais itself. I wanted to go there. I wanted to see it. I wanted to just… steep in it. I couldn’t even hear the name of the place without remembering Leliana in Dragon Age: Origins, standing by the fire in her uninspiring two-piece medium armor, gushing about the exquisiteness of Orlesian shoes. She never went into detail, but she didn’t need to. My imagination filled in the blanks with full bows and soft brocade and the thick, shaped heels present on shoes before the use of metal stems in the 20th century redefined the rules of footwear. Like fellow Paste contributor Gita Jackson I was also transfixed by early marketing materials showing off Vivienne, a mage and an Orlesian courtier. Her design was so strong, so flawless, and so unapologetically feminine.
Morrigan, too. She was redesigned, and concept art detailing the intricacies of her fashionable new costume, complete with a striking bodice sitting remarkably low on the hip in the Orlesian style, were released early so that cosplayers could get a head start on replicating them. It all seemed so lush and wonderful and set the tone of my expectations. But when I say that I find the fashion two-dimensional, I mean something very specific. Dragon Age: Inquisition, like countless games before it, falls into a very big, very subtle trap with regards to “feminine” fashion. It’s not breaking new ground at all, but rehashing some of the same stylistic archetypes we’ve been looking at for decades. Feminine clothing is never just feminine clothing. It’s never simply personal taste on display. Instead, it always seems to mean something, and that’s the problem.
Before we go any further, we need to define what we’re talking about when we identify an outfit, accessory or general design as “feminine”. This topic is a bit of a minefield in terms of gender representation, so I’m going to try my best to break this down based on concrete stylistic features. There are certain signature elements commonly found in designs we might identify as “feminine”; things like bows, lace, embroidery, and ribbon are the most obvious choices, but “feminine” design can also be demonstrated in form, through lines and curves that both imitate and accentuate an idealized female figure. In this way all “girly” fashions (fluffy and pastel and floral and so on) can be categorized as feminine, but not all feminine fashions are necessarily girly. Think slinky gowns and sweeping necklines, for example. We can in turn use this to define “masculine” design as something comparatively simple: Straighter shapes, plainer components, and a much closer relationship to utility than style. After all, a lot of the various elements commonly associated with “feminine” design—including those bows, those ribbons, those shapely skirts and necklines—don’t exactly lend themselves to a lot of wear-and-tear.
Now close your eyes and picture game characters whose taste in clothing (and by that, I mean the taste that a human being designed for them to have) aligns with a “feminine” style. Sidestep the non-descript, androgynous tank tops, t-shirts and jeans so many strong female characters are outfitted in. Recall countless physically fragile healer companions—your Aeriths, your Yukikos—and on the other end of the spectrum the provocative, dangerous, and not entirely friendly sorceresses—your Lulus, your Bayonettas… Your Viviennes, your Morrigans. Remember those countless spoiled princesses and decadent ice queens; endless examples of the weakness and the threat of womanhood. This Madonna-Whore split and the archetypes associated with it are not unique to games, but they’re as prevalent here as anywhere.
Of course there are exceptions to this, but they usually treat the “feminine” option as just one more costume. Sometimes it’s supposed to be funny, and sometimes it’s supposed to be sexy—your Juliette Starlings, your Lightnings. It’s rarely ever just feminine without having some other purpose behind it.
To take this one step further, the default wardrobe for a strong female character is all too often indistinguishable from what her male counterpart would be wearing in every way (but for how revealing or figure-hugging it is). And you know what? In a lot of ways that’s absolutely fine. I want to be clear that I don’t think every female character should be dressed in a “feminine” manner, just as I don’t think every female-identifying person should. Far from it. Don’t mistake this as a call to see Lara Croft running around in a peplum, because even as much as I love my skirts and ribbons I don’t know that I’d personally want to raid tombs in anything but sensible tank tops and pants. Beyond that, some people just don’t identify with or even like that kind of fashion, and that’s absolutely fine too.
The thing is, the expectations attached to something as simple as a skirt extend beyond virtual spaces. Earlier this year Paste’s own Maddy Myers wrote about how she’d spent years trying to “dress the part” for conventions and industry get-togethers, putting profound care into assembling the perfect schlubby-but-not-too-schlubby look and never once wearing the things that she actually wanted to wear because she knew that she would be taken less seriously if she did. Feminine clothing is all too often associated with inferiority. Even in feminist circles, “feminine is not anti-feminist” has become something of a mantra for members with a sincere soft spot for ruffles and glitter. Liking the color pink shouldn’t inherently say anything about who you are or what you can do.
When I see this particular fashion sense employed in a medium I love above all others—a medium that is making tremendous strides, though it still has a long way to go—it’s frustrating to see it used either as a sign of fragility and vulnerability, or a sign of threatening power. I desperately want to see that taste represented without it being the butt of a joke, or some sort of coded message. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the closest I can get to this is making the blouse under my own character’s boxy leather coat out of a bolt of elegantly detailed silk. Meanwhile, Vivienne and Morrigan swan about as characters just like them have for longer than this medium has even existed. Perhaps with a little more nuance than before, but not so much that they are unrecognizable.
Femininity is either weakness, or it’s weaponized. It never just is.
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.