The Women of Skyrim

Courtesy Bethesda
Pop quiz: is that a man, or a woman, slaying that dragon?

I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim lately, between shifts at the day job and stabs at the rewrite. Even when it’s not entirely on my brain, the experience lingers, reminding me of quests to finish and things to craft at my local friendly blacksmith’s forge. That may be why, when my brain was otherwise occupied with work-related minutae, I engaged in a brief Twitter debate about Skyrim’s women.

This may seem a bit like riding on the coattails of yesterday’s Jimquisition, but this actually began here. A little entry on an Escapist thread went over well enough that I thought it warranted Tumbling. A concerned young woman, seeing my tweet, responded with a picture of a ‘busty wench’ from the game. I responded with some pictures of my own, contending that while some of the women in Skyrim do wear bodices, the treatment and portrayal of the ‘fairer sex’ is a lot better than it has and could have been.

You see, the women of Skyrim are varied characters from all walks of life, from warriors to mages, from miners to barmaids. I’m about 30 hours into the game and I have yet to see one being shown in an objectifying or demeaning manner. No dancing girls, no slaves to a male figure, not even a prostitute in sight. And the women who take up arms do so practically. They don’t squeak when they get hit and most of them wear armor that actually provides some protection, instead of wearing a couple of iron goblets over their nipples held in place by fine silver chains and magic.

There is, to me, a huge difference between characters like these and other ‘strong females’. Skyrim is closer to Eternal Darkness or Beyond Good & Evil than it is Heavenly Sword or any fighting game you care to name. Let’s face it: a barmaid in a bodice is no Mai Shiranui.

Courtesy Bethesda & SDK
One of these things is not like the other.

Now, I understand that barmaids are often dressed or dress themselves in a certain way to attract the male gaze and thus increase their tips for an evening’s work. And I know this isn’t necessary in a video game but can be exploited for a bit of that “peep show” thing game designers like to pull off. But, in this case, I don’t think Skyrim is doing this intentionally. Rather, it is set in a particular place with a particular aesthetic (namely, medieval Europe) and the ladies who made a living waiting tables in taverns had many of the same concerns and ways of addressing same that women working at Hooters do, only I doubt the owners of the Bannered Mare insist on booty shorts and tight, lung-restricting t-shirts. And nobody is expecting a barmaid to get into a one-on-one fight with someone – though if they did, most of them would kick our asses, you have to be tough in that business. Mai, on the other hand, is a competitor in the King of Fighters tournament, and dresses… well, you get the idea.

See, the reason I think Skyrim is succeeding where other games fail, at least in terms of aethetics, is that it’s only occasionally we see something like the barmaid above. For the most part, the women of Skyrim are dressed for the weather and their work. Furs, practical armor, hell – I met a woman north of Riften who works in a mine, and she’s doing it in a very plain shirt & trousers. That doesn’t stop me from considering her a potential bride for my hard-working spell-sword Breton Dovahkiin. My point is that these ladies are attractive without having to stop and pose like they know somebody’s watching them. And when you create your own female, the options are much more varied than they are in, say, Star Wars: The Old Republic. Which I’ll talk about soon.

Unfortunately, they aren’t delivering so much in the personality department. The voice acting and motion of the characters is much improved over Oblivion, but some of the limited dialogue options and repetition that happens in certain situations – following me, being my housecarl, etc – pierce the illusion that these are more the sort of female characters (or NPCs at least) many in the community are looking for. Still, from where I sit, it’s just another thing about Skyrim that marks it as an impressive feat and well worth all its hype. Even if it’s just a small move in the right direction, hampered by the lack of personality the way one of us is hampered by our shoelaces getting tied together, a little movement is better than none at all.


  1. I watched my brother play Skyrim on Thanksgiving and I loved it so much that I’m actually getting Windows for my Mac JUST so that I can play Skyrim. (I’m also looking forward to some Mass Effect action, but hey, mostly Skyrim.) So needless to say I did not see anything objectionable when he was playing the game or I would NOT be interested.

    To be honest, it’s this sort of thing that drives me batty because I feel like people will make the most ridiculous claims re: female representation and then other people will just jump on the bandwagon, wanting desperately to be PC, without actually investigating it for themselves or trying to think about the subject with any nuance at all.

    For example, how many people are jumping to call Twilight sexist without reading the books or watching the movies? (Note: not defending Twilight, as I have not read the books and only saw one movie, which is precisely why I don’t feel fit to judge.)

    Sorry to use your blog for a jumping-off point for a rant, but I guess it just bothers me because I think female representation in storytelling media is a very important topic, and people being trigger-happy ridiculous only ends up diluting the discussion around the things that ARE objectionable/problematic.

    Also, that barmaid in Skyrim has a bust comparable to my own, and I wear shirts like that sometimes (minus the corset), so I guess I are hussy? Nice to know.

  2. @Annalise – Thanks for your comment! I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking that the aesthetic of this game is not only far from objectionable but a step in the right direction.

    It’s really not the clothing that’s objectionable, it’s the way things are worn and presented. Wearing something like the above does not automatically make you a hussy. Attention-grabbing behavior, apparent shallowness and instances of duckface are more to blame in that regard.

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