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Perceptions of Gender and Stereotypes in The Outer Worlds

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I would like to preface this post by pointing out that I'm a woman and I'd prefer if we could keep the personal attacks and character assumptions to an absolute minimum here.

So this is my first time playing through TOW and to begin with I found the balance of male to female leading roles refreshing. I was surprised to find a number of matriarchal characters present in the universe and for there to be a healthy depiction of female relationships throughout the dialogue and broader narrative in the game. I still find this a refreshing aspect of the narrative of this unique and fun game however, I have also found that something was sacrificed to bring this about, the male image.

Lets be frank. Throughout the narrative the player is essentially tasked with deposing men from positions of authority and replacing them with women. The depiction of authorative male characters in this game is of greedy, short sighted or otherwise incompetant leaders who constantly battle against women instead of working with their community and in the scenarios where you encounter greedy women you aren't tasked with replacing them or in any way reducing their status.

Let me list some examples where the player is greatly rewarded for deposing men or for improving the position of power for a woman:
- You replace the male owner of the boarworst factory on the greedy whims of a female. You can choose not to do this but for a completionist or somebody who wants to experience the full content of the game you essentially lose as a player if you don't take this mission up out of some sense of ethics. There is no alternative to expose the female character for doing something massively illegal for her own greed, the only option to experience more content as a player is to take the path where you depose the male character of all of his power

- You replace leader of Edgewater for a female if you want the "good" ending, where essentially everybody is happier, safer and more prosperous except for the single male who was deposed

- You fight a power struggle for either zora or graham, with graham disregarding the wellbeing of his people and zora begging him to think of the humanitarian crisis he is facing. Essentially if you want to back a humanitarian position you back the woman, as always in this fictional universe

- Every romantic relationship you are given the option to advance is done so on a womans terms. Every romantic advance made by a man is essentially painted as unwanted or as borderline sexual assault with the prevelant use of aphrodesiacs being demonstrated to be an exclusively male pattern of behaviour

Meanwhile, situations where you encounter corrupt women of power you are simply encouraged to play ball with them or there is some caveat that shows the woman as being in the right all along. The most obvious example I can find for this being the saltuna cannery line manager on terra 1. She's found to be embezzling while reducing worker pay and yet the player still has to [threaten] her in order to progress the narrative to award better pay for her workers. In this case if you want to proceed down a humanitarian path you essentially have to perform an action that makes the path seem far less benevolent. In my opinion this runs counter the the narrative of the rest of the game and the only factor that I can see is different is that its a woman whose power you are attempting to diminish.

99% of the villains in this game are men. You receive rewards for exposing men, reducing their power and improving the power of women consistently throughout the narrative. You are essentially told between the lines that the only way this colony can function is as a matriarchy and that male leadership is toxic and breeds dysfunction and corruption.

Look, there's a big difference between creating a matriarchal universe for a player to explore and setting the player up to be rewarded for creating a matriarchy. I found it extremally interesting at first and I found that my intrigue in the fairly balanced power structure of this universe kept me highly engaged in the narrative, however as it became more and more clear that the overarching narrative was to pin the problems of this colony entirely on men I found it extremally off putting and I found myself making bad ethical choices just to stick a big middle finger up at the writers.

Honestly this was close to being something of an egalitarian masterpiece. A story that everyone could enjoy and with characters all parties could relate to, where female players could finally find a game that unabashadly did not conform the the sexism found rampant in the industry. In the end however it just has to take that narrative and mar it by pushing the pendulum to the other side.

This may seem a little off topic, but do you know what narrative Quentin Tarantino intended to express in his film Inglorious Basterds? Throughout the film you are exposed to characters who are part of the Nazi regime. Through dialogue and action you are shown that some of these nazis are evil to their core, some are just troops waiting to go home to their families and some are real men of honour who just so happen to be on the wrong side of the war. The film then shows how in German cinemas of the era,  people would go to watch a film that shows a nazi soldier gunning down hundreds and hundreds of allied troops, really showing how the nazi politicians and dignitaries (non combatants) at the time were being desensitised to death and how they were taught to revel in the death of the enemy through cinema, then minutes later a mirror is held up to the real audience in the cinema watching Inglorious Basterds, as they find themselves revelling in a scene of gore as a cinema of german civillians and nazi dignitaries burns on the screen in front of them as allied spies gun them all down with abandon. The audience subliminally compares their actions to the actions of brainwashed fictional audience, they compare the actions and attitudes of their own nations troops in WW2 with the average nazi soldier. Barriers are broken and the audience is left staring into the mirror to see their own indoctrination (if they have half a brain anyway). A poignant message about indoctrination and group identity is made.

Why did I bring this up? Because in my opinion the narrative of this game revels in the deposition of men from power just as those german civilians and nazi dignitaries revel in the death of the enemy displayed in that cinematic medium on our screens in Inglorious Basterds. I just wanted to be the mirror.


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What a very interesting observation, thank you -- you've given me a lot to think about. (This is not snarky--I mean it.) 

I think that if I had to hold up some outliers, I'd note that Sophia Akande is an antagonist (if you're anti-Board, that is), and Phineas Welles is a protagonist (again, if you're anti-Board).  There are some other examples of quests where you have male protagonists and female antagonists, or at least jerks (I'm thinking of "Cupid of the Laboratory" and the Early Retirement Program quests -- though they are very much side quests and not tied into the main arc or subarcs like getting in good with SubLight).

However, none of this IMO invalidates your point, which is (correct me if I'm wrong!) that generally speaking, major male characters (in particular, the antagonists) are portrayed in a more tropey fashion in the game.  

I will point out, though, that from my own personal experience*, I at no point got any sense that "the colony's broken because of men and the solution is to kick out the men and put women in charge**".  I always had the personal impression that the people in charge of the colony (including Sophia Akande) were a bunch of people who placed no value on the inherent value of people (non-elite people are resources, to be used and discarded when no longer useful to those in power) and who valued utilitarian ethics, and it never crossed my mind that they were that way because of their (apparent) gender***.  Again, other people might draw different conclusions according to their own experience -- it's just an observation on my part related to my own experience. 

* Your mileage may vary

** In the Board Ending, you essentially put Sophia in charge (as I understand it -- please anyone correct me if I'm wrong, as I haven't played the Board Ending yet, myself).  My understanding from the Good Ending is that your character is more or less in charge (unless you choose the Ice Cream ending), leaving a group of people probably including Phineas, Junlei, Zora, and maybe some others (I don't believe it's explicitly laid out, but I might be forgetting) as your "small counsel".  If your player-Captain is not female (and you haven't chosen the Ice Cream ending), then that means the colony is now being lead or at least directed by a not-female person.

*** And I might not have noticed it due to implicit bias, to be sure.

Thank you for the post!


Edited to add: I didn't want you or anyone else to think I was minimizing or glossing over your other salient point, which is that by portraying this kind of behavior as being largely carried out by men, it could reinforce/normalize negative stereotypes about men, which can be incredibly damaging to actual men.  I agree.  I was just trying to get to my points.

Edited by Jackalgirl
Apparently I'm incapable of finishing a thought, even after a month.
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  • 2 months later...

I don't mean this as a negative, but with regards to the quest and writing, there's definitely been a sea change in writing at Obsidian, and what you've seen might be the result of more female writers on the project that can bring their perspective to the table, which is a good thing.

I don't think this is a bad thing - the only time I have a problem with representation and diversity in media is when it hurts or undermines the plot (to explain this - if you watch the Netflix's Old Guard, a vague spoiler:


In Old Guard, you instantly know a plot point is tied to a specific character because (i) it is bad and (ii) he is a heterosexual white male, and if they'd tied the plot point to any of the other more diverse characters, it would have sent a bad message - BUT it allows you to telegraph the plot for reasons that shouldn't matter because you realize he's the only character that could have done the Bad Thing).

Again, no judgments, but Outer Worlds may also have that issue, where they may be course-correcting too much and not letting the narrative flow naturally for the sake of addressing gender imbalance.

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