I’ve a strong interest in how women get portrayed in computer games; partly because I’m a strong believer in equality, partly because I like supercool ass-kicking women and there’s so few in games. With that in mind I’ve often found myself thinking about the depiction of female characters in my beloved Warcraft. There’s a hundred different ways I could approach such a topic, but for today I thought I would stick with the big picture and look at some trends across the board. To do that, I’m going to analyse some of Warcraft’s lore characters with a doodad called the Bechdel Test.
The Bechdel Test is intended a measure of female presence in media. Originally showcased in a comic strip (+1 geek point there) the test examines a film (or in this case, computer game) based on containing 3 simple criteria:
1. Does it include at least two female characters?
2. Who talk to each other?
3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?
It’s actually quite shocking how many movies, tv shows and games totally fail this test, which is of course the point. Naturally it is by no means perfect, but it’s useful as a kind of litmus test of how women are portrayed, highlighting the complete lack of well-developed female characters in modern entertainment. So how does World of Warcraft fare under the Bechdel Test?
Well, it goes without saying that the first criteria is satisfied, it would be hard in a world as large as Azeroth for this not to be the case. However the remaining two points quickly become problematic. Now I’m not the first to apply this test to Warcraft, but to explore this further I decided to gather a host of Warcraft’s various female lore characters and submit them to the criteria of the test. The only stipulation I’ve made is that talking to player characters does not count, for obvious reasons.
For our consideration are…
I’ve always liked Jaina. In Warcraft 3 she quickly developed from a rather timid character into a bold leader of her people. Not to mention she saved the world and stuff. However ever since then she has been a bit of a broken record. Arthas this, Arthas that. Yeah we get it, your high-school crush turned evil – it happens, get over it. I really hope that now that Wrath is coming to an end we will see some more of an interesting path for Jaina.
Talks to Other Women? Yes, although only just. Her fellow Dark Rangers are all female, and she gives them orders during the Frozen Halls instances. I have never seen her communicate with any other women however.
About Something Other Than a Man? Yes. Well, technically she is giving her Dark Rangers orders as part of her vendetta against Arthas, but I won’t be too picky.
Sylvanas is one of my favourite characters ever and to my mind represents Warcraft’s superlative in female ass-kickery. As such I am glad to see her pass this test, as she is by far Azeroth’s strongest female character. However I feel it is worth emphasising that the pass is tenuous at best, and Sylvanas doesn’t actually talk to any significant female chracters. This is partly due to the lack of any other female Horde leaders, plus the fact that other than the Dark Rangers there seems to be a lack of any women in the Forsaken hierarchy. Sylvanas reminds me of Elizabeth I of England: the epitome of a strong independent woman , but in terms of actual female interaction there is very little going on.
Talks to Other Women? Yes. In Warcraft 3 she talks to Shandris Feathermoon, other Night Elf Sentinels, Maiev Shadowsong and to Jaina.
About Something Other Than a Man? Yes, her and Shandris spend the first part of the Night Elf chapter of WC3 discussing their worsening situation.
Tyrande is probably the most solid pass for this test in all of Warcraft, probably because she leads a society that until recently was female-only (the Night Elf men were all having a nap). In a sense this seems kind of odd, as Tyrande’s major role in the Warcraft plot is her juxtaposition between Illidan and Malfurion Stormrage, but we have to remember that Tyrande has a long history of being a pretty amazing female ruler. The only unfortunate thing is that we don’t really see it currently in-game, as she mostly just hangs around in Darnassus failing to interact with anyone, female or otherwise. Still, a resounding pass to the Bechdel Test.
Talks to Other Women? Yes. She talks to Tyrande in Warcraft 3.
About Something Other Than a Man? Absolutely not! The only thing Maiev ever talks about is Illidan.
At the other end of the Elvish spectrum from Tyrande we have Maiev. She is a very straight-forward fail, her obsession with revenge on Illidan making her completely one-dimensional.
Talks to Other Women? Ish. We never see her talking to another woman in-game. However it is safe to assume she has talked to her sister Ysera and other female dragons. We also know she was close to Dahlia Suntouched.
About Something Other Than a Man? Presumably yes.
Why the fail? Well because whilst from a lore perspective we can assume that Alexstrasza has talked to other women about all kinds of things, we have never seen this occur in any of the Warcraft games. The Bechdel Test measures forms of entertainment, not just their background, so I sadly have to fail the Lifebinder based on this criteria.
Talks to Other Women? No, at least no that we ever see. We can assume that as envoy to the Wymrest Accord, she talks to Alextrasza and others.
About Something Other Than a Man? Unknown.
This one makes me very sad, as I absolutely adore Chromie and as a character she is by far the most inspiring and kind-hearted of the dragons. Unfortunately, whilst she has come to the aid of female characters like Pamela Redpath, she has only ever been seen to talk directly to male characters, with the exception of the player.
About Something Other Than a Man? Yes, they discuss the arrival of the player, as well as ongoing issues in the Stonetalon Mountains.
This may seem a bit of an odd once to select, as Magatha doesn’t do much except hang around in Thunder Bluff. However I selected her because she will have a greater role in Cataclysm. Her pass is tenuous, in a similar vein to that of Sylvanas. She has technically conversed with a woman in-game, however it wasn’t especially significant. It does however show her as a female leader who does sometimes talk to other women so let’s call that win, even if it is by a slender margin!
Thoughts on the Test
To be honest, Warcraft doesn’t fair too well under the Bechdel Test. Out of 7 major female characters only three pass the test, and two of those are by slender margins. Obviously there are other female characters I could mention, but I was struggling to find many more who had significant roles in the Warcraft storyline. I mean, Magatha was clutching at straws to be honest. I thought about lore characters like Garona and Aegwynn, but I decided not to include them as they haven’t technically shown up in the game yet, not that I think either would pass the criteria anyway.
Of course the test is really just meant to be used as a general indicator, there are all kinds of problems with it. You can easily have a film or game that passes the test that is still overtly misogynistic or gender-blind, and just because one passes doesn’t means that all is fine from a feminist perspective. In the context of Warcraft, I think it is also worth considering that part of the problem may be because, at least before Wrath, not many WoW NPCs really interacted much at all. Therefore any character’s ability to talk with anyone, male or female, has been somewhat limited.
However, I think the fact that it is difficult to find more than one female Warcraft character that passes definitely tells us something. The long and short of this little blog post is that viewed through this particular method, there is something wrong with the women of Warcraft. Of the three of my candidates that passed the test, two did so only by conversing with minor throw-away characters. That’s a problem.
Personally I think most of it is due to the fact that there are so few noteable female characters. Sylvanas would easily pass if there were another female leader to talk to, or indeed if one of her named Forsaken champions was female. I’m not saying there should be some kind of arbitrary 50% quota for the gender of game characters, but it is true that the women are in the minority here. To be honest I struggled to come up with many female characters for this post and had to go poking my Twitter buddies so I that I could remember half of them (thank you Rades, ShadowMisery and Thyanel!). This discrepancy is why I supported the idea that the leader of the Bilgewater Cartel should be female, but sadly that doesn’t look as if its going to happen.
I also think the representation of Warcraft women could be enhanced greatly with a just a bit more emphasis on the fantastic female characters we already have. Sylvanas absolutely rocks as a strong character, but is hamstrung by the fact that she is, well, a psychopath. Its not the best female representation when your coolest lady is actually a cold-hearted killer. Looking at some of those characters above there is a lot of potential to have some more oomph. Jaina would be an incredible woman to look up to if she just stopped being the Arthas’s ex and started being a heroine. Tyrande already has a lot going on for her, she just needs to actually do something in-game, anything at all really other than looking pretty in Darnassus. As for Chromie, she’s an awesome character, I don’t even think she needs any improvement, just the odd conversation with another female dragon might be nice for solidarity.
Ultimately, the female Warcraft character’s we have possess a lot of potential.It would just be nice if we saw more of their awesomeness, doing more stuff together and if we saw more of them period.