All of the media on this page feature a dynamic / flawed / powerful heroine front and center.
I have created this list of exploration through talking to fellow artists and industry-people; my personal experience playing and watching media; and by referencing the lists of other people posing inquiries similar to mine. [works cited]
There is a trove of film, television, and video games that contain stereotype-breaking presentations of women, and there are numerous scholars who have endeavored to list and study them. My own list here doesn't want to be exhaustive. Instead, I have included only works that I have personally experienced and consider to be especially salient in inspiring my own work. I have endeavored to keep the list limited to video games to keep it from becoming overbroad, but a few pieces of television and film work are too good and too inspirational to be left off.
TOMB RAIDER (1996 - )
Lara Croft is the original video game heroine, starring in a franchise that continues to produce new installments to this day. Tomb Raider is an action adventure platformer series that follows the exploits of Lara Croft, an archaeologist-adventurer who jetsets to exotic locations to treasure hunt with a matching set of pistols. The gameplay of the original series consisted of maneuvering Lara across platforms (hence “platformer”) while shooting enemies (mainly wild animals), and completing time-based puzzles.
Tomb Raider: Origins has added a significant layer of story to the mix. The story is that of Lara’s descent from archaeologist into badass. Lara is shipwrecked, separate from her crew, on an island replete with bloodthirsty, psychotic men. She is immediately captured and forced to fight to escape. From there, she must solve the “curse of the island” alongside her shipmates while continually escaping from the maws of the psychos. The player bears witness to Lara’s psychological evolution along the way. Lara cries – literally weeps – throughout many of the opening chapters. Her resolve continually toughened by winning firefights and otherwise triumphing over her enemies, by the end of the game you can hear her shout: “I’m coming for you!” as she charges at her enemies. She has become a typical American badass: unafraid, capable of besting all of her enemies with physical violence, and oftentimes driven by revenge.
Lara’s arc in this installment is to be beaten down until near-death, then to rise, phoenix-like, into a heroine. This was the producer’s intent. Their portrayal did not always sit so well with players some of whom’s reaction was along the lines of: “we finally have a video game action heroine – did she really have to cry for the first third of the game??”
Lara’s physical representation also bears a brief discussion within this paper. Lara’s original pixels are highly sexualized and most likely intended to titillate the (almost universally) imagined audience of hetero men. As Lara evolves, her appearance does as well. She remains slim and beautiful, but her proportions become realistic and she looks the athlete that she performs as.
Lara’s latest appearance will be in a movie coming in 2018.
UNCHARTED: THE LOST LEGACY (2017)
The Uncharted series (1-4) is a standard-bearer in the industry for an AAA action-adventure platformer.* The series follows Nathan Drake as he treasure hunts around the globe ala Indiana Jones. It is a largely “on-the-rails” experience, which means that there is, for the most part, only one way to play through the game, with no divergent player-made choices, and little opportunity for exploration. The entire Uncharted series is known for its storytelling, but Uncharted 4 raised the bar to new heights with an incredible, emotional story that dove into the backstory of Drake.
Uncharted 1-4 helped prove that video games are more than capable of delivering an immersive, emotionally resonant story to players. Its inclusion on this list, however, is not only for this reason, but for the latest chapter in the series: Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The Lost Legacy is created in the same format as the previous installments, and players can expect identical gameplay. However, The Lost Legacy is different in that it stars two women of color as the adventurers in the story. Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross had costarred in previous installments of Uncharted as Nathan’s allies and sometimes adversaries. Here, they run the show, and Nathan is nowhere in sight.
The Lost Legacy was initially conceived as supplemental DLC (downloadable content), but then was produced as a full standalone game. In my opinion, its story is not as masterfully crafted as Uncharted 4, with undoubtedly much fewer resources and a different directing team. Many of its professional reviews would disagree with me, however**. I have included it on this list for giving the player the opportunity to play as two badass babes of color.
*Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End received an almost perfect score (9.5/10) from Game Informer.
**Uncharted: The Lost Legacy received a 9/10 from Game Informer.
HER INTERACTIVE: NANCY DREW (1998 - )
Her Interactive’s Nancy Drew computer game series gives players the chance to play as the clever, brave, and sometimes downright- arrogant, titular detective solving cases around the globe. Since the first game was released in 1998, there have been 33 different games released, each featuring a different case.
The games always follow the same familiar first-person, point- and-click formula as used by such a classic as Myst. The player clicks their mouse to advance through different static environment screens, collecting objects along the way and using them to solve a variety of puzzles. The Nancy Drew series also includes non-playable characters (NPCs), whom the player can interview for more information in solving the mystery. Many of the games are intended to be slightly scary, but the targeted age range is for “sleuths age 10 and up.”*
Her Interactive intentionally seeks to contribute positively to the video game landscape. Their website states: “Our Nancy Drew series offers exciting adventure game play without violence or gender stereotypes.”* I have found this to be true as I have played over 10 of the titles within this series. The characters within the series are always diverse and original, and violence is never an optional course of action for Nancy. Instead, she always solves the mystery in time to stop the villain until the police arrive. Nancy also utilizes a small network of male and female friends to help solve her cases, able to reach out to them on her phone to talk through stuck-points and receive hints to progress the game.
I can also personally attest that the games within the series never show a likeness of Nancy Drew herself. This is likely in an effort to allow players to more fully self-identify with the protagonist.
*From HerInteractive website.
THE WALKING DEAD:
SEASONS 1-3 (2012 - )
Telltale Studios is a pioneer in the choose- your-own-adventure video game genre, creating video games that are essentially interactive movies whose outcomes are determined by in-game player choices. The Walking Dead: Seasons 1-3 were developed off of the Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels of the same name. The series is an example of emotionally devastating, cinematic video game storytelling. Its inclusion on the list is due to the character of Clementine, a young, Asian-American girl who transforms as a heroine throughout the series.
In season one, Clementine is a young, scared girl who has lost her parents in the recently begun zombie apocalypse. The player, playing as a 30-something black man named Lee, decides to protect the girl and take her with him on his journey. He teaches her what he can about survival and resilience in their new world.
In season two, Lee has died and now the player plays as Clementine directly on her survival journey. The player is made to make tough decisions about independence or community; self-preservation or generosity; cunning or honesty. Clementine endures many more losses.
By season three, Clementine has evolved into the typical American male hero: a battle-hardened, sangfroid loner of few words. She is the only character that has survived through all three seasons. Her evolution’s backstory is revealed through flashbacks, where the player gets to experience the tender, emotional heart of her that is now concealed.
An entire study of the young girl as heroine is possible and has been undertaken in part by such scholars as Kathryn Wright in her book The New Heroines. A similar arc to the one just described here can be found in the zombie survival adventure game The Last of Us.
BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL (2003)
This early title continually made Anita Sarkeesian’s list as one of the best video games ever created in terms of the positive values it espouses. Beyond Good & Evil is a third-person adventure game with a mostly-linear storyline, which centers the protagonist Jade as a journalist working to expose a corrupt military organization that has been murdering the people of her planet. Jade must work with the shadowy resistance to expose the military organization for what it is, leading to the support from the public which will end their tyrannical reign.
Jade has some common “heroic” characteristics: She is seemingly fearless, always good-natured, and ready with a quip even in the most hair-raising of circumstances. Jade certainly does not look like the typical hero, however, with a slight, short frame which means that she is frequently – literally – looking up at the other characters. The game tends to make fun of the characters in the game that look like the heroes traditionally found in games. The soldiers of the military organization are portrayed as hulking meatheads in mech suits who love to underestimate Jade’s abilities, at one point saying in a street encounter: “Too bad little ladies can’t apply to be on the force,” while laughing.
This, of course, makes it all the more satisfying when Jade takes them down.
What also makes Beyond Good & Evil different is how is treats everyone else in the game’s world. In most adventure games, if a character is neither an enemy nor an ally, it is set dressing to bump up against. In Beyond Good & Evil, the community is not only a primary character in the game, it is oftentimes the reason that Jade fights at all. In one scene towards the beginning of the game, Jade and her friend Pey'j are pulling out onto the lake on their hovercraft when an airstrike begins. It is not directed at them, and the safest course of action for the two adventurers would most likely be to flee. Instead, they do the opposite, engaging with the enemy in order to protect the ships in the harbor. Their characters are heroic in the way we think of superheroes: protecting the community not because they stand to personally gain from doing so, but because it is the right thing to do. This value set is also what drives Jade and Pey'j to take orphans into their home.
FALLOUT 4 (2015)
Fallout 4 is fourth in the Fallout series of open-world adventure games that allows the player to customize the protagonist’s physical appearance and personality. Fallout 4 takes place in a barren landscape many years after a nuclear war. The protagonist is free to roam over a gigantic open map, choosing quests and missions along the way, and collecting items and experience (XP) to upgrade their character’s skills. Conversations with other NPCs allow the player to choose how their character would react: will they be friendly, aggressive, stoic, or outgoing?
Fallout 4 offers an option for creating a non-typical protagonist: allow the player to create the
character themselves. When I am playing the game, my character is a beautiful woman of color with an athletic build and an average body weight. She is courageous, speaks little, and looks out for herself above all else. Thus the emergent narrative while I am playing – the story that is created in interacting with a game’s systems – is that of a beautiful, athletic woman of color in a post-fallout landscape. In this game, I am creating the diverse representation; the game has simply given me a vehicle to do so.
I will add that I felt extraordinary immersion while playing this game. There were times when I truly forgot that it was not me, Dana, who was roaming across a desolate countryside, gazing up at a wrecked bridge, and looking at the stars. This immersion likely arose due to the character customization and the vast level of choice available to me as a the player.
THELMA AND LOUISE
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LIFE IS STRANGE (2015 - )
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GONE HOME (2013)
Pictured here is an actual in-game environment overlaid with a fan art rendition of one of the events of the story.
JESSICA JONES (TV 2015)
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