I first encountered the Fable game series during my freshman year of college. I binge-played the first game, spending long spans of time at my then-boyfriend’s house over my school’s winter break until I had played the game from start to finish. I was enthralled. I loved the elaborate world, the mini-games, and the balance between story and action. I loved helping a stranger with some odd task and then having to fight a horde of enemies, constantly switching between my magically augmented crossbow and longsword. I loved that every decision you made affected your character and the subsequent gameplay.
Now I’m all grown up (ha!) and semi-recently played the third installment of the Fable game series. The game was released in 2010, but I didn’t have a chance to play it then. When my boyfriend and I picked Fable III up from a local GameStop, I was stoked. I was excited to become addicted. I was especially excited because I knew that this game (along with Fable II) allowed you to choose whether you wanted to play as a man or a woman. This change from traditional male-focused action-RPG represents a step forward in my eyes. A kind of invitation to gamers out there who are girls and women, and the opportunity for a greater sense of inclusion. I was also nervous about this change. Since becoming more aware and well-versed in feminist ideas, I tend to approach video games with caution (and, admittedly, a little resentment). It’s not news to anyone that women have not always been treated with much respect when it comes to video games–both on the screen and in the gaming community. In all honesty, when I started playing Fable III, I was waiting for something to go wrong, but I found myself pleasantly surprised. At the start anyway.
There are a lot of things that Fable III does right. I liked that the princess you get to play as was tall and had a sturdier build than the runway-model-figure I had expected. I liked that you encounter characters of varying race whether you found yourself amongst nobility or the industrial workers. I liked that the fact that my character was a woman was hardly commented on throughout the first part of the game.
I was aware that Fable III has received a great deal of flack for simply being a “bad game,” and I had my fair share of complaints while playing. But, overall, I was really enjoying the game as I played, and I was pleased I hadn’t encountered the sexism I had been bracing myself for. I played for hours, and my biggest complaint was a single scene in which some character fetishized a kiss between the female hero and a cardboard princess she saved in a mini-game (which is a topic for another day). For the most part, I was satisfied with the way the female hero option had been treated. I was actually telling my friends how happy I was that I could simply be a badass princess-hero saving Albion without being made to feel weird about my gender at all.
And then I heard it.
“Look, it’s the lady hero. You’re not going to drone on about equal pay for equal work, are you?”
I froze. What? I was sure I had misheard somehow.
“Are you lost, milady? I can direct you to the nearest kitchen.”
Nope. I was definitely not hearing things. Fable III, kiss my praise goodbye. You just pissed off a different kind of warrior.
Let me give you some background here. Within the overarching storyline of the game, there are dozens of quests you can undertake to earn rewards. These quests can be as small and simple as taking an item from one town to the next, or they can be more elaborate, involving multiple trips or battles. In one quest, you are to help a man whose collection of gnome figurines have turned evil and escaped from his gnome garden. The gnomes are scattered throughout the fictional land of Albion. When you find one, you’re to hit it with some kind of weapon, which makes that gnome magically disappear from that spot and return to the gnome garden. These gnomes are hidden in all kinds of places, often high off the ground where you would never usually look. To find them, you follow their voices as they speak. As you follow the voice, it becomes louder as you draw closer, acting as a way to help find them. The big gimmick of these evil gnomes is that they don’t just speak–they insult you. You’ll be walking down a street and amidst the chatter of the townspeople you’ll hear “You know what I like about most people? THEY DIE.”
(Images from http://xbox360.gamespy.com/xbox-360/fable-iii/guide/page_29.html)
At first, it was funny. The gnomes were obnoxious, sure. But they were meant to be annoying and evil, so the insults fit. Plus, the prize for returning them all to the gnome garden was a hefty one. But my willingness to put up with the gnomes only lasted until I started hearing the gender-specific comments that took me completely by surprise.
Here is a comprehensive list of the comments specifically aimed at woman heroes made by the gnomes. If you play as a man hero, these comments don’t exist.
- “You’re going to make someone very lucky… If he likes UGLY BIRDS with no PERSONALITY!“
- “You remind me of my mother. SHE WAS FAT AND UGLY TOO!“
- “You really got your father’s looks. Eww.”
- “Are you lost, milady? I can direct you to the nearest kitchen.”
- “Well well, a young lady. Make yourself useful and get me a cup of TEA!“
- “There are a lot of problems in the world. It’s going to take one big, strong MAN to fix them.”
- “Look, it’s the lady hero. You’re not going to drone on about equal pay for equal work, are you?”
- “Good afternoon, milady. How about you come over here, and show me the GOODS!”
Wow. There are A LOT of problems here. If there’s a tired, old, stereotypical insult to touch on, they’ve done it. Let’s break it down.
“You’re going to make someone very lucky… If he likes UGLY BIRDS with no PERSONALITY!“
“You remind me of my mother. SHE WAS FAT AND UGLY TOO!“
“You really got your father’s looks. Eww.”
These three quotes may appear to be the most harmless out of the lot. For now, I’m not even going to touch on the fat shaming bit (although in my research on this part of the game, I’ve learned that the gnomes have an additional group of insults for heroes who have become “fat” over the course of the game from having eaten certain foods). The last of these three comments is also specifically looking to punish for a lack of adherence to traditional ideals of “feminine” beauty (and one could definitely argue some blatant transphobia is at play here). But the issue I’d like to focus on is that the spirit of each of these three comments is an accusation of ugliness. So what’s the problem? Men get insulted by being called ugly too, right? Well, yes, but the idea tends to hold a different kind of power on the women’s side of things. Women are told over and over, consciously and subconsciously, that their appearance is one of their most important attributes–it is their main source of worth and value. So yes, while men are insulted by being called ugly too, this accusation has a much deeper-rooted affect and history for women that must be considered. The first of these comments also plays the “you’ll never find a man” card, which is another tired insult used to not only make women feel undesirable, but also to reinforce the idea that finding a man should be a top priority for a woman.
“Are you lost, milady? I can direct you to the nearest kitchen.”
“Well well, a young lady. Make yourself useful and get me a cup of TEA!“
Both of these comments lazily use the “learn your place as a woman” idea that’s been inducing rage in my life ever since I can remember. These comments send a clear message: women shouldn’t be out leading a life of adventure and political action–they should be at home, bound by crippling stereotypes about gender roles!
“There are a lot of problems in the world. It’s going to take one big, strong MAN to fix them.”
Nothing clever about this one. Just the straightforward idea that women are inferior to men in their ability to take effective action and make a difference.
“Look, it’s the lady hero. You’re not going to drone on about equal pay for equal work, are you?”
I must say that I found this one especially irritating. It irks me in a different way than the others. All of these comments are meant to get your attention and annoy you. This one really gets at me because I feel like it was designed to target people just like me: women playing video games who care about feminist issues. So good job. You’ve called me out and belittled my ideals. What this comment is really saying is “Shut up about your feminist ideas because no one wants to hear it.” Are you sure this game is supposed to be fun?
“Good afternoon, milady. How about you come over here, and show me the GOODS!”
Ah, yes. The collection simply wouldn’t be complete without some kind of inappropriate sexual comment that would reduce the female character to nothing more than a objectified body there for the pleasure of a man.
So yeah. I was pissed. All I wanted to do was enjoy a fun video game, and my fun was being stomped on by these stupid gnomes. I felt unwelcome. I felt unfairly targeted. I felt like I was being made to feel bad for being a woman in a world that didn’t belong to me. And no, it didn’t feel like a good-humored joke.
Furthermore, these comments made me feel legitimately uncomfortable. I started to dread encountering the gnomes. When approaching an area where I knew one was hiding, I would start to feel anxious and wonder if there was a way to go around the area. It occurred to me that it actually felt like street harassment. Unwanted comments specific to my gender that gave me that awful pit-of-darkness feeling in my stomach and made all of my muscles tense up. And it wasn’t always easy to remedy the issue by poofing the gnome and sending it back to the garden. I would spend minutes that felt like hours searching a certain wooded area for a gnome I couldn’t for the life of me find while it harassed me facelessly only to give up and run off to leave the gnome and his banter behind. I wished I could turn the quest off somehow and forgo the whole task and its prize, but I couldn’t. I was stuck having to have offensive remarks hurled at me unexpectedly while trying to go about whatever other business I was working on. I felt genuinely upset. I started looking up their exact locations online when I heard one nearby so as to dispose of them as swiftly as possible and save myself the rage and annoyance.
(Original image from http://fable.wikia.com/wiki/Gnomes)
But aren’t these comments coming from characters we all are acknowledging as evil? I know a lot of you are thinking it. Sit tight because I’m going to get to that question in a second.
First, what about the men? Once I realized the gnomes were spitting out gender-specific insults, I immediately wondered what players using the man hero experienced. I was being made fun of for being a woman. Were the men being made fun of for being men?
Of course not. In fact, every single comment from a gnome that is directed specifically at a man hero uses the weapon of perceived/stereotypical femininity (or the lacking of masculinity) to insult him. Every. Single. One. Don’t believe me? Have a look:
- “The ladies must really love you. You could share makeup tips and trade shoes!“
- “You look familiar. Oh yeah, I remember: you look like this girlie I used to shag!”
- “Look at those rippling muscles, those broad shoulders, that squared jaw… You are one weird looking lady!“
- “I can tell you where there’s a nice big chest of gold coins… You can use them to buy yourself some new handbags!”
- “You really got your mother’s looks. Eww.”
- “Blue is a nice colour for you. You should pick out a nice blue DRESS!“
- “You certainly are a big, strong hero…for a lady.”
- “The world needs a big, strong man to put things right… you know any, milady?”
- “For my money, men make the best heroes. Present company excepted, of course.”
The first six comments all exploit the same idea: the hero is being labeled as feminine in some way and thus should feel tremendously insulted. This is a problem, though not a new one. People have been insulting men in the form of calling them womanly for ages, and I am certainly not the first to have spoken out regarding the problematic nature of this device. I remember encountering this idea in Jessica Valenti’s book Full Frontal Feminism:
“What’s the worst possible thing you can call a woman? Don’t hold back now.
You’re probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt (I told you not to hold back!), skank.
Okay, now, what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch pussy. I’ve even heard the term ‘mangina.’
Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult. Now tell me that’s not royally fucked up.”
We see this go-to insult everywhere from sitcoms to playground bullying. If you’re whining or perceived as weak, you’re called out as a girl and are meant to feel terrible about it.
I won’t break down the offensive nature of each comment, but I’ll sum up the two main problems running wild through the list. 1.) The traditionally feminine is used as an insult, implying that anything related to women in badbadbad. 2.) The idea of the inferiority of women is perpetuated by telling us that women are simply weaker and men are needed to fix real problems.
These comments also reinforce the very strict gender binary we are force-fed in our society. We’re told you’re either a man or a woman (and we’re usually told you must be born that way). And that’s that. This completely erases the communities of people who don’t conform to this supposed norm. This is an issue not just in this specific instance, but in video games in general. While including women as playable characters is a step forward, we are still greatly lacking in representation of anyone who doesn’t fall into the extremely traditional and limiting man or woman categories.
So, the big question remains: why do I find this so upsetting? First of all, it’s a small part of the game, right? What’s the big deal? Second of all, these are characters are portrayed as evil, so it shouldn’t be a problem that they are saying offensive things–they are MEANT to be offensive!
The problem with that latter argument is that you aren’t meant to be genuinely offended–you are meant to laugh. Do you really think that they wrote and recorded these comments thinking “Gee, this will really expose the idea that these kinds of offensive comments come from evil people and are wholly unacceptable.” Of course not! They were created to exist in that sticky “offensive but funny” vein of humor. In that way, these offensive comments and the ideas they represent and perpetuate are actually being associated with something positive (hello, retro sexism!). The truth is, the dark and harmful stereotypes lurking behind these ideas aren’t funny–they are the roots of the oppression that people face in their everyday life all over the world. We live in a time where people say that gender equality is completely logical and then turn around and undermine those ideas by trying to pass off stupid sexist jokes and ideas as “funny.” Well, I’m not laughing.
Additionally, the creators of Fable III made a CHOICE to include this type of humor. I get that the point of the gnomes is to insult the hero, and that’s fine. But they could have easily made all the gnome comments gender-neutral, using the same ammo against every hero, regardless of the chosen gender. But they didn’t do that. They CHOSE to employ sexist insults that target women in a severely problematic way. Even worse, they bash women in BOTH sets of comments. Whether you’re playing as the prince or the princess, you are going to be bombarded with comments that remind you that WOMEN ARE INFERIOR. And you are either condemned for being one or insulted by being compared to one. The truth is, there was NO REASON for the creators to include gender-specific comments that lean so heavily towards misogyny. So, why did they do it? Seriously, why? If you can answer that question with a response that doesn’t point to harmful sexism, I’ll be very surprised.
And lastly, why should I be getting so worked up over something that is such a small part of the game? I would first argue that this part of the game is not that small. While it is a secondary quest to the main storyline, it is one of the few that extends over an extremely long period of time. Did I mention that there are FIFTY gnomes in total? That’s quite a few, all scattered throughout a large world. Basically, this quest hangs over your head for the majority of the game, and you could be verbally assaulted by one of these gnomes at any time. For being a minor task in the game, these gnomes are present over an awfully long period of time, making this quest and their harassment feel like more than just a small part of the game.
(Image from http://www.trueachievements.com/gamerblogcomment.aspx?gamerblogid=51871)
Moreover, small parts of anything still warrant conversation. A problem is a problem, no matter how small. Pointing out issues like this gets people talking and thinking about the much deeper dynamics at play. Am I out to start a riot or a boycott? No. Am I so outraged by this misstep that I’m going to stop supporting the game series altogether? No. I still appreciate the Fable series for the good it has done, but that doesn’t mean I can’t call it out for messing up too. I offer a nod to Anita Sarkeesian, who often points out in her videos that “it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.” When it comes to stamping out sexism in pop culture, I truly believe, like many others, that we shouldn’t settle for “good enough.” Yes, we can appreciate the progress that’s being made and celebrate it, but we should still keep a critical eye on the problems that are still occurring over and over again–or else these things will never change.