Understanding Sexist Undertones in WoW, invitation for discussion

I want to give some credit to Keeva over at TreeBarkJacket for her recent forays into understanding gender representations in World of Warcraft. While her focus was primarily on raid/dungeon bosses (which is a monumental task given how ambiguous some creatures are). This was brought on by another blogger making a post trying to justify WoW’s gender balance by saying that Cataclysm improved the male to female ratio of bosses. Weird right? It got me thinking about some of the areas where WoW is a bit weak in this regard (please let me know what you think, these are only some examples):

Strength of Female Leaders – You can’t expect them to have an equal number of male or female lead story-board characters because ultimately the writers have been working with the same plot line for a while now. What you can comment on is the attitude of the major female roles. Jaina is powerful but she seems to succumb much more to emotions than other major characters. I still can’t shake the sound of her crying in the RP after Deathbringer Saurfang is killed, saying “she’s so proud of her king, <sniffle>”. Sylvanas is strong willed but she is also conniving and deceitful. Even Maiev Shadowsong’s only purpose in the story is to chase after Illidan. [This is not to say the male characters are much better, Garrosh is pretty much an a-hole]

Sword and Sorcery Tropes – For as long as I can remember the high fantasy genre produces a fair bit of fan-service for its male followers. Most (and I don’t mean all) fantasy stories involve a dominant male hero who often time saves a helpless woman. When women are involved as capable fighters, fairly often their armor is skimpy or makes little sense. A Chainmail bikini isn’t really a functioning piece of equipment is it? This category includes a huge amount of smaller tropes and common themes (if you’ve played The Witcher and have gone around bedding all of the ladies that might be one of them).

Character Models – If you ask a lot of guys about playing female characters, the cliché response is sometimes “Well, if I have to spend a lot of time staring at the backside of the same character, it might as well be something aesthetically pleasing [sic]” (you can probably guess the terminology they’d really be using). For the alliance races (except Draenei) the female models make some sense. The bust size and hip proportions are probably suspect and their muscle mass is so vastly different from the males that it is hard to imagine that they would be able to produce the same amount of force when wielding a weapon. Horde models (and Draenei) are a little bit more suspect. You have races such as Tauren, Troll, Draenie, and Orc where the female model is basically an attempt at taking the supermodel style bodytype and incorporating just enough of the races features to make it believable without taking away the “human” perception of beauty. Unique features such as the Tauren’s horns, Trolls Ears, Draenei’s tendrils, and the Tauren/Draenei/Orc’s hulking body type were vastly changed in the female models. In the alpha builds of the game the Tauren and Troll females looked drastically different and fans complains because they were too unattractive. Take a look at the photo

(Picture courtesy of Wired.com)

Now these points only address some of the bullet points one might hone in on when addressing sexism in WoW. There certainly may be more, and some that I, as someone who idetifies as male mentally and physically, might not perceive. What I have not included is the player base in wow and how much sexism that adds to the equation. The quality of the average player and how they treat other female players is arguably a whole separate conversation we could have. From my discussion with female gamers who have quit wow due to concerns over sexism, it is almost entirely due to how other players treated them and not the treatment of women by the game itself. I have always found that rather interesting.

I’d love to hear from other WoW gamers out there who have perceived elements of racism, sexism, ableism, etc. in the game and how you feel it could be dealt with.


11 responses to “Understanding Sexist Undertones in WoW, invitation for discussion

  1. I think you’re reading too much into things.

    One could switch this around and have it as the females ogling the males, which it does happen. I’m sure you can find tons of fan fiction about someone’s WoW toon getting it on with King Varian or something.

    Its just a video game… you either enjoy it or you don’t.

    • I clearly enjoy it as I’ve been playing it for quite some time. I personally am not strongly influenced by the examples I’ve written about because they don’t strike a personal chord with me. I’m more trying to strike up a discourse on the potential sources of sexism that exist in the game. Nothing I’ve listed is really that over the top of course, just more interesting and informative.

      WoW is not that oppressive of a game and there are certainly other fantasy games/artwork that are far more demeaning to women to be sure. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be analyzed in order to find areas where it could be improved. This isn’t an attempt to bash the game in a completely mean spirited way.

  2. What bothers me with the models isn’t the sexual dimorphism, it’s that the female models often seem to have less effort put into them. Troll females do not blink, tauren have all sorts of clipping issues, how many months did dwarf females have a bug involving the most prominent piece of armor on a character? I guess it doesn’t matter if a model is clearly bugged or unfinished in some way, as long as it is decent fan service.

    On the other hand, they might have given them all the night elf booby bounce had they put more effort in. I guess there are some things to be thankful for.

    Lore-wise, I find myself more disturbed by what happens to minor female characters instead of bothered by the admitted issues with Jaina and Sylvanas. For example, Keristratza is raped. Obviously the best way to help a rape victim is to murder her. What were they thinking?

  3. I appreciate you making a post on this. Cedna brings up a good point in the last paragraph, one that I’ve seen mentioned a lot when people talk about ableism in WoW. The idea that something that isn’t in perfect condition (be it plagued, or…raped?) should be mercy-killed is rather troubling for actual human beings who don’t measure up to what we typically consider mental or physical health.

    I do agree that a lot of the worst offenses of playing the game occur at the hands of the players, rather than in elements of the game itself. However, the game designers are in a place where they can direct and control the treatment of female characters (one of the biggest complaints about having so few female major NPCs is that they become charicatures of “feminine” behavior: Sylv is an evil witch, Jaina is a delicate flower. The more male characters their are, the greater range of (masculine) behavior they can show, and avoid becoming stereotypes) and therefore lessen the negative impact it has on female, male, and other gamers alike.

  4. The game does emerge from a broader social/cultural context that is shaped by the absence of positive female power and by the objectification of the female form. This clearly goes beyond WOW, although perhaps the fantasy genre is more affected by this than others. Also, perhaps questions of objectification are getting more and more complex these days as male bodies too are, increasingly, regarded as objects. I think there could, however, be so many interesting ways that Blizzard could deal with and challenge sexism (more prominent, empowered female leaders AND more emotionally reflective and caring male leaders for example).

    Maybe playing wow for long time has made me to take the underlying sexism for granted – what can you do, this is the world we live in. What most bothers me in game, however, are the things players say. I never forget being online just before a reset and seeing someone suggest on trade that the best way to spend the remaining 5 minutes would involve everyone going to AV and raping Balinda Stonehearth. No one on trade pointed out the violent and sexist meaning of such a ‘joke’. Players generally easily refer to being raped which, if you look at the stats, is a horrific crime that predominantly affects females. And unless the opposing faction players pulled down your Vicious Gladiator pants and forcefully penetrated you then no, you were not raped at the Lumber Mill. Every time I see someone posting stuff about rape, I wonder how easily something like this is used as comic relief. And that, to me, is a further marker of the sexist culture we live in.

    I am lucky to have an awesome guild with strong, super skillful female players and very reflective and (mostly) non-sexist male players. The community you play in makes a huge difference in terms of your playing experience, also in terms of sexism.

    I really, really appreciate you starting this thread. There is, also, more to be said about the underlying and explicit homophobia that dwells in WOW (how readily is something being really negative replaced with ‘gay’, and what’s with the accents and characteristics of some races that seem somewhat outdated and, frankly, racist).

  5. Pingback: Male and Female Portraits « The Eyrie

  6. I started to answer this, but was so inspired as to put up a post entirely of it’s own in my blog. This is a controversial topic, and an extremely interesting one. I’ve done quite a bit of reading in things like this, and I think it’s a very important, useful topic to talk about.

    Not to necessarily say I agree with everything, though.

    Link inc:


  7. I’ve to agree. I’ve been playing Wow for over 3 years now and trust me as a female WoW player I’ve been through A LOT!
    I’ve been in guild where I was the only female and trust me I got a lot of attention, not always positive. I’ve experienced sexisms in many ways. Strangers calling you “honey, darling” and treat you way differently once they find out you’re a female, compared to having them assuming you’re just another dick (or having one). I’ve also noticed how some females do not mind that type of attention, infact they encourage it, thinking if they bend over to them they will get more loots, infact some did. If you stand up to them, they will accuse you being a feminist, male-hater or having PMS. If you only take a look at trade channel now and then you’ll see the vulgar language used in there, most of the time degrading to women. I’ve also noticed how Blizzard in a way encourages this, I came a long to a forum post which pretty much says it all (no it’s not me what started it): http://eu.battle.net/wow/en/forum/topic/1267106830 – NOTICE the blue post at the end. Heh pathetic.
    Personally, I play the game just to escape the reality of just how women are treat in real life only to experience the same ingame. Sigh, there’s no escame.
    I understand in the way how some guys are, they do infact think with their dicks and most of your lifes you will never understand what a woman has to edure, but I’m more raged over the fact how most females ingame act like whores, personally I don’t think that’s “okay” and I guess most of the cases it has to do with the way they were raised, attention, and no selfesteem.
    Trust me when I say, I’ve been through A LOT. I can tell you about my latest experience, I was in a guild where there was an female officer did ABSOLUTELY nothing but basicly flirt and bend over to just about every guy in the guild, regardless if he was new member or old. This resulting in having one guy leaving the guild because he was leading her on (started flirting and when the guy clearly fellt for her she had no interests in him) and having another “stalking” her (according to her). Now the only reason why she could get away with this was because she was liked among the guys especially the guild leader who in a way, even encouraged this behaviour. When the guys called her a tard, bitch, slut and so on she just “lol”, they clearly did not have any boundaries why would they, when she did not say “stop”. The thing is when they tried same with me and I told them to stop they joked among themselves about how I was “pmsing”. (Pathetic reply from sad men who can’t handle when been told by a woman). This resluting in me leaving the guild because I knew I wouldn’t have any support from anyone in the guild, and I didn’t. I clearly “overacted” according to the guildleader, which I amuzing since I pretty much did everything for the guild, recruited new members and lead the raids. All this was easily forgotten when you “hurt the male ego”.
    When tried to explain how all this happened because of the female officer and her action because clearly they did not have boundries I was ignored.
    It’s amazing how sexcisms is so easily neglected but if you say words like “f*g” or “jew” you’re immediately accused of being homophobic or racist.

  8. I actually had a female friend in alpha, and I’d like to point out that, at the time, it was mostly the women playing World of Warcraft who supported and wanted the change to the female models, the few that there were. Though to be honest, this was a time when woman were not a big gamer market so there was very little issue with it, Blizzard was targeting a more male oriented player base. I remembering playing vanilla WoW and having people surprised that I was a woman and what not, and having to go through the ‘there are no woman on the internet’ kind of thing; that said, I met many more people who were just as polite and civil as ever.
    It never really bothered me personally, sure some of the armour looked slutty and clearly pandered to the male audience, but again, these were the trends of the time of this genre. It still happens today, sure, but it’s happening a lot less often, evening happening the men too. And in many of the cases it does happen, it’s often satirising the old stereotypes of before, which Blizzard does a lot in WoW and so do many of the players.
    Sure, I have to go through some comments every now and then, but I also have to go through some neofeminist-nazi complaining, sometimes at me (even thought I’m a woman too) for this and that. Some people look to be offended, or as for it.
    To be honest, if it bothers anyone that much, they may want to consider cancelling their sub or not ever talking to players.

  9. I’ve always had an issue with how Tyrande has never done anything in the game. She just stays quiet in her city and waits for Malfurion to come back.
    But even more recently. The 2 main characters with more personal agenda with the Lich King were Jaina and Slyvanas. Yet they werent there in the final battle with him, and the one who kills Arthas is someone who was never involved with him. And now Jaina’s main goal, to bring peace between human and Orcs has been disregarded like if it would be more fun to kill each other again. And Sylvanas who was previously very cunning and powerful, and a major threat to the Lich King is now being treated like a spare.

    • Tyrande clearly had her moment in the sun in Warcraft 3 and not so much since then. I think this concept that a faction leader not being out fighting wars or being part of major struggles being a bad thing is unfair. Right now the warcraft universe is a small place with no real armies that rival what we have seen in the RTS games or you’d think would exist when whole races go to war. I understand that people have calculated the actual size of Azeroth being smaller than the Earth’s moon and the population is small as well (cozy country town versus a bustling Earth sized city) so the everyone knows everyone thing is in effect as well. Once upon a time kings and leaders led their men into battle but that is an extreme liability in my opinion.

      Having a leader who is looking to do just that, lead, is still a noble decision. She is in charge of her people and manages their capital city which I’m sure has problems outside of wars. The thought of our president, elite unit or not, wielding a rifle and walking out onto the battlefield seems a little silly I suppose. For the most part many of the faction leaders follow suit: Cairne Bloodhoof (and Baine), High Tinker Mekkatorque, Magni Bronzebeard, Prophet Velen, Vol’jin, and Lor’themar Theron. These leaders make cameos in the Kil’jaeden death party and the revised ZA plotline etc. but they are not significant in any real way. Of the 10 main faction leaders really only Wrynn, Thrall/Garrosh, and Sylvannas actually DO anything significant.

      Jaina is there but she’s kind of a wild card and I can’t agree with how they’ve portrayed her exactly. The defense of their peace-nick somewhat emotional depiction of her is that she’s been through a hell of a lot, lost a hell of a lot, and has no real military command or influence. More than likely she just wants everything to be ok which is probably what she was fighting for all along.

      Sylvannas is conniving and deceiptful (and as of late downright warlike) but she does things in her own way. She’s not usually the one to aggressively and directly confront someone (hence the sneaky get Frostmourne storyline in the 5 man dungeon I’d think). Her general attitude is perceived, and I’m guilty of this as well, as some perverted twist of female stereotypes. The difficulty in thinking that though is separating all of that from the intense bitterness and hatred the forsaken feel as a whole (I’m sure being dead kind of sucks). They hate everything and everyone living and are only allied with the horde by necessity rather than comraderie. That kind of alliance is tenuous at best and you can believe she is going to have revenge on her mind and an opportunistic mindset when protecting her people. This may make her a poor female lead character given her tendencies, but she’s not a nice person and is not trying to be.

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