The Effect She Can Have

[Originally posted at Sf Novelists.]

 

She has no idea. The effect she can have.

There were a number of things that struck me in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (which I only got around to reading just last month — yeah, I’m behind the curve), but that line had particular resonance. It’s Peeta, Katniss’ fellow tribute, talking to their mentor Haymitch — and the topic is Katniss.

The effect she can have.

The narrative tells us (and shows us) repeatedly that Katniss is not conventionally likeable. She can’t relax for the camera or play nice in the ways girls are expected to. But when Katniss is allowed to be herself . . . .

How many of you have played Dragon Age 2? (This isn’t as much of a non sequitur as it sounds like.) For those who haven’t: the game has an unusual structure, stretching across a decade of in-story time, its segments framed by the narration (or rather, interrogation) of your protagonist’s companion Varric. He’s being interrogated because your character, Hawke, has played a pivotal role in a major conflict — and because Hawke is, as he puts it, “the one person who can help you put it back together.”

Varric’s narration is surprisingly effective. The things he says throughout are shaped by the decisions you make during gameplay — which makes it feel like those decisions really do matter — and then sometimes he slips in allusions to events you haven’t seen yet. (His interrogator says accusingly that Hawke knew what was going to happen, and Varric denies it: “None of us knew. If we had . . . she never would have let [X happen].”) It took me a while, though, to figure out that there was something else going on in my reaction — something beyond appreciation of the clever structural game the writers were playing.

She.

Hawke can be a male or a female character. You pick which one you want at the start of the game, and the conversations (and certain events) are adjusted to suit. Bioware does this in most, maybe all, of their games, and while some people object that the changes aren’t enough — that the female Commander Shepherd or Grey Warden or Hawke is just the male character with a different voice actor and image — I love it, and Varric’s narration made me realize why:

Because it allows you to experience the novelty of a woman being the most important damn person in the world.

Everybody in the frame story of Dragon Age 2 talks about Hawke in the kind of terms used for an epic fantasy hero: a person at the crux of pivotal events, the one whose decisions made or broke the world around them, the only person who can fix it all afterward. In the Mass Effect series, Commander Shepherd is a galactic hero, feared or honored by a dozen alien species. When you play those games, your enemies will go to any lengths to defeat you, and your companions will die to protect you. And if you chose to play as a woman, you hear all the dialogue that’s normally reserved for male heroes . . . but it’s she and her and my god that sounds weird.

And awesome.

. . . and, thanks to the part of me that has internalized sexism, a little embarassing. It feels Mary Sue-ish, having people speak in such monumental terms about this woman. About any woman. I’m used to hearing men referred to that way; dozens of epic fantasy novels and action movies have accustomed me to the notion that a male character can inspire such loyalty in their followers, or scare a room full of people just by walking in. It’s okay, according to that bit of my subconscious, for guys to have that kind of power fantasy. But women should be more realistic.

Screw that, sez the rest of my brain. I have every right to indulge in that kind of dream, via a surrogate of my own gender. And I have every right to want more stories that give it to me.

Which brings me back to Katniss. She is not, as far as I’m concerned, a Mary Sue. She’s a flawed person whose virtues and strengths shine through like fire. We believe in that when it’s the effect he has; the difference is that this time it’s she. It’s the girl, not the boy, who has the internal and external resilience to survive the Hunger Games, who inspires allies and sponsors to devote themselves to helping her.

It shouldn’t feel like a novelty, reading about a female character of that sort. But it still does — and until that changes, it’s going to continue to have an effect on me.