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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:

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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  • 2 months later...

I think you are right in your analysis of the game. It's something that struck me early during my playthrough that most of the male NPCs you can have an exchange with are dumb and/or disenfranchised while women are either in a position of power or poised to get in a position of power in the wake of the player doing quests around them.

I'd like to add a couple of thoughts to your analysis.

Halcyon is devoid of toxic masculinity. Everyone is a beurocrat, so if someone gets mad at a woman simply registers a complaint. I haven't found a single character bragging about their manliness. This is good for the NPCs, less strife in their families, but it feels strange. They probably couldn't come up with the right way to portray that kind of situation and decided to avoid it altogether. The problem is to achieve this they sometimes seems to have done away with the concept of masculinity altogether. Looks like there's no way a man can be muscular and tough and bragging in this system apart from being a tossball player (tossball is so over the top it crosses the line thrice), a corporate enforcer (except they can't toughen up without filing the proper forms in four copies) or an outlaw (well McRedd is ok I suppose).

The problem with the writing as I perceive it (being a male heterosexual) is that there's no sane heterosexual male to look up to for me in Halcyon. The closest to it is Reed in Edgewater, but since that particular storyline is set up in a fail/fail way (Reed is kind-hearted but ignorant, the woman leader of the dissidents is informed on how to make nutritious meals but is a rabid extremist) it's difficult to look up to him in any way.

I think you are right in your conclusions. I found this game very refreshing with its handling of female characters, the way they were written like real human beings and all. Parvati is the best example: she's a strange person with strange sexual and sentimental leanings and she says strange things but the weirder it gets the more I like her as a person. It takes real good writing to pull that off. But yes, I think they lean too much on one side of the "man vs woman war" (in which I use the term "war" ironically). I don't think it was intentional though. I think they probably had many female writers, who of course, identifying with female characters, are naturally drawn towards them when it comes to writing a plot (as are male writers drawn to writing male heroes), and the single plots taken one by one are all good and well written, but probably in the end no one stopped to take a look at the complete picture and see that it was skewed.

Now a bit of an off topic (has nothing to do with women but has to do with stereotypes): they got it right in portraying ethnic diversity I think. In that compartment they managed to do a great work in tossing together colors and roles. First dude to die is black, but so can be your hero (and do great things). Sophia is evil, but Sanjar is good. Sanjar has an Indian accent, but he sounds like a proper Indian, not some kind of stereotype. I don't think I ever met a single far east asian character, but it probably has to do more with graphics than with writing (after all Junlei sounds very much far eastern).

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On 10/25/2020 at 8:06 PM, Waveybish said:

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.

 

You could just say "game bad, feminazis", you know. A good post ends up being sunk by a comparison that's incredibly on the nose and about as subtle as a primal in heat.

Seriously though, is it bad that the game doesn't specifically cater to the one gamer type who is catered to in virtually every other type of media, by being taken as the default character? It specifically doesn't feature much in the way of the hyper-masculine caricatures who define themselves through violence and violence only, and that's compensated by a much greater variety of characters, including men. I'm surprised that anyone would consider Reed to be someone to look up to, though, when you have the ED secretary, Phineas, Vicar DeSoto (especially after he gets mellow), Felix, Sedrick Kincannon (a lovable, dashing rogue, if there ever was one), and a slew of other characters who can just as easy be followed/looked up to. 😛

 

[ The Vault ] [ The Wasteland Wiki ] [ Pillars of Eternity Wiki ] [ Tyranny Wiki ]


 


My, that's a whole lot of wikis!


Why, thank you, I love them.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I'm aware of women being depicted more favorably than men in this game.  But as a man, I'm fine with it -- the same way I'm fine with women holding a majority of positions in some professions (such as psychology).  The reason is that men aren't necessarily deprived of opportunities in those areas.  When people say "equality," they really mean the opportunities available to them.  Nothing is ever fifty-fifty in life, but you can provide people with EQUAL ACCESS to the opportunities -- that's what equality should be really about.  The NBA has mostly black players, but do you see white players complain?  That's because white players feel they have plenty of access to the opportunities, as long as they have the skills.  Regarding the topic at hand, do we really feel men are being deprived of positive portrayals in video games??  The answer, we all know, is hardly -- not ever, and not at this point in history, not in the post-"Me Too" era.  It is women who have felt that historically female characters have not been fairly depicted in games, movies, etc.  Throughout history, untold amount of TV, movies, etc. have portrayed women as drab, shallow, non-existent, etc.  The Outer Worlds scarcely tips the scale here.  The solution is to have more diverse thoughts in game development, with more diversity in the industry.  That won't necessarily give fifty-fifty equally favorable treatment towards any one gender in any one product.  But it will give a greater *opportunity* to have more depth and diversity.  In short, we shouldn't look at just one game, but the whole industry and its trends.

Edited by GamingPhreak
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Posted (edited)
On 3/20/2021 at 6:09 PM, Tagaziel said:

You could just say "game bad, feminazis", you know. A good post ends up being sunk by a comparison that's incredibly on the nose and about as subtle as a primal in heat.

Seriously though, is it bad that the game doesn't specifically cater to the one gamer type who is catered to in virtually every other type of media, by being taken as the default character? It specifically doesn't feature much in the way of the hyper-masculine caricatures who define themselves through violence and violence only, and that's compensated by a much greater variety of characters, including men. I'm surprised that anyone would consider Reed to be someone to look up to, though, when you have the ED secretary, Phineas, Vicar DeSoto (especially after he gets mellow), Felix, Sedrick Kincannon (a lovable, dashing rogue, if there ever was one), and a slew of other characters who can just as easy be followed/looked up to. 😛

 

I think you have missed the point of my argument (which is somewhat ironic given that in your reply you express that my comparison lacked nuance but there we go haha, jkjk). 

The point that I was making was as follows; similarly to the audience *in* Inglorious and by extension the audience *of* inglorious, TOW seems to revel in the defeat of an enemy. In the case of inglorious, the enemy for the audience inside the film were the allies, the enemy of the audience of the film were the axis powers or specifically the Nazi's (it could have been any enemy for all I care, but this is the only film that I can think of that actually attempts to deliver this message), and the enemy of TOW seems to be men (though I think they were aiming at patriarchal power structures but missed the mark and ended up attacking, in my opinion, men in general, but that's just by the by and the message probably just got mashed as the script was transformed into a game, that's not even really the half of my argument here).

I was not intending to directly compare any of the writers of TOW with nazi's for the sake of fulfilling Godwins law, indeed I didn't ever compare them with real life nazis at all, rather the portrayal of nazis inside of a fictional universe. Further, I was attempting to point out that it is rather dehumanising to revel in the defeat of an enemy inside of a fictitious space, which I believe was one of the messages of inglorious. I think another message to be learned from inglorious is that in order to understand how something unjust can occur and be accepted as normality inside a society it is important not to dehumanise the people who found it normal, but to attempt to relate to those people in order to learn why that unjust system became normalised in the first place. Just like it would be incredibly vapid and weak to say "oh, in general nazi's and their supporters must have been evil", which teaches you absolutely jack about ****, it is also vapid and weak to say "oh, in general, men in positions of power in a patriarchy, or people who supported the power structure of a patriarchy were greedy and/or incompetent and/or ignorant", it teaches you nothing about how or why a patriarchal power structure existed in human history and it certainly sheds absolutely no light on how to prevent the formation of unfair power structures in the future, so any point being made along these lines is basically a massive vapid non-point that just highlights the ignorance of the person making it. 

The difference between inglorious and TOW is that inglorious had a "mirror" in that the actions on-screen physically mirrored the reality of the audience watching the film, the audience of inglorious were, for a brief instant, forced to relate to the nazi's on screen and so may concede that perhaps the vast difference in morality or mindset that must exist between themselves and the average german citizen/nazi voter during WW2 may not actually exist at all. Spooky.

Having said that, I did consider that perhaps I was misinterpreting the message and that TOW is somehow posing this exact challenge to the player in some meta way, but having played through the game again I could not find any device that seems like it was intended to deliver this message. I could be wrong but I kind of doubt it.
 

Edited by Waveybish
Grammatical errors
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@Jackalgirl Thanks for your thoughts Jackalgirl. I think you raise some excellent points here, the best of which I believe was to remind me that, of course, my argument is based entirely on my own interpretation of what I believe to be a message delivered by the game, which was filtered through my own subjective experience and that I may be (and in fact, likely am) projecting my own meaning onto it and subsequently misinterpreting the actual themes that were intended to be discussed by the script authors. It is a salient point to raise and I appreciate you making it in such a polite way. It would of course be extremely valuable to collate the actual opinions and motives that the writers expressed specifically surrounding the topic of the TOW script which is something that, evidently, I haven't done haha.


 

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