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Female Pandaren and Player Self-Image

December 1, 2012
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I am all for the more realistic and accurate depiction of the female form in video games, but until the last few months I don’t think I really understood just how important this really is.  When the Padaren female form was first announced (with a teaser image that only showed their silhouette), some pretty awesome bloggers tackled the subject of whether Blizzard had missed an opportunity to truly create a nontraditional female character.

At the time, Pewter at Decoding Dragons critiqued what appeared to be an “hourglass” shape on the new model.  While I would argue that this ended up not exactly being the case (something we couldn’t have known until we saw the full model in-game), the lady Pandaren form is still considerably smaller than the male one.  As with many of the Warcraft races, the males and females hardly look like they’re really from the same species.

And yet – despite these problems, despite the fact that Blizzard didn’t quite manage to break bad habits – I am extremely comfortable with the new Pandaren “me.”

Hachidori transmog

I’m not playing a Monk as my main this expansion just because I’ve been dying to try out the class.  Obviously, since I’m someone who plays WoW primarily for the PvE and raiding content, that is a big part of my reasoning.  But from the moment I created my first Pandaren during the beta to the moment I hit 90 on live servers, I’ve felt a pretty serious connection with this character.

In the years I’ve been playing Warcraft, I’ve created toons of nearly every race (orcs and dwarves are my only exceptions), and the vast majority of those toons have been female.  In every other MMO I have played, I have also created female toons.  Even when the option was present to design a character with a non-hourglass figure, I have usually created pencil-thin, lithe women to portray my online self.  My night elf druid was no exception.

But I never quite felt comfortable in my night elf skin.  If you’ve read about my love of gnomes and my wish that I could have a gnome druid, perhaps it was at least partially because gnomes are a race with which I can actually find some common ground.  I’m short, I’m funny, and I like to study lots of things.  I am not 6 foot tall without an ounce of fat on my body, nor am I a few thousand years old, nor do I have an intense distrust of every other race and culture besides my own.  I played a night elf more out of necessity than desire, and while I certainly don’t dislike my character, I also can’t honestly say that I identify with her very much.

There’s definitely a weird spectrum for me (and possibly for other female gamers) when it comes to how much I want my character to be like me versus how much I want my character to be like the idealized version of me.  One way we use video games is as a form of escapism, so it’s necessary that our characters be somehow Other than ourselves.  But for this tension between reality and fantasy to be effective, there has to be some element of truth to the fantasy.  I need to believe I could be a 6 foot tall elf with druidic powers.  Or, I need to believe I could be a spunky gnome, or a noble Pandaren.

My Pandaren is still very much an idealized version of myself.  She is strong – fierce, even – and unfailingly self-assured.  She belongs to a people who have overcome centuries of oppression, and have done so while maintaining an incredible sense of humor, cultural identity, and a pretty rocking racial cookbook.  Balance and harmony guide her, while good friends, good stories, and good brews sustain her.  Why wouldn’t I want to be more like her?

I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting your avatar to be “beautiful” or “desirable” or “sexy.”  But beautiful, desirable, and sexy aren’t really qualities that would get you very far in a world like Azeroth.  Strength, perseverance, humor – those are some things that Azerothian heroes need, and some things I’d like to have a little more of, myself.

What I’ve found in Blizzard’s depiction of the female Pandaren is an example of a female avatar in a video game that is both aesthetically pleasing and acceptably realistic – to me.  This doesn’t mean she’ll be appealing to all women, and that’s Ok.  The important thing is that female WoW players are getting more options to create more idealizations of themselves.  That is, in and of itself, a step in the right direction.  For a video game company to acknowledge that we might want to make ourselves something other than the busty badass or the bookish heroine is a relatively new thing.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2012 10:47 am

    Interesting post. I have to admit I don’t like the female Pandas at all. I’ve tried playing them both on the beta and live and just can’t bring myself to do it, not even for the Jade Crane Chick. It’s not the body shape, it’s the faces. I find myself wanting to smack that stupid smug look off her face within about six seconds of playing. Now when she jumps, she shows just a hint of fang and I think if that look was available permentantly I’d be far happier with my little Snowflower. I suppose bouncing all the time is an option though, I do it with most of my characters :p

    Certainly I tend to focus more on my character’s personalities rather than their physical looks. In many regards my Gnome is quite a bit like me, a mix of giggles and seriousness and whilst I would like the ability to play the race perhaps closest to my own body shape (the Vrykul), that stems more from the fact that I feel Blizzard need to add more options to the mix than a desire to play myself.

    The more choice we have, the better though.

  2. December 1, 2012 5:21 pm

    Interesting point, especially regarding the female Pandaren. For what it’s worth, I think Blizz went the extra mile regarding facial expressions for both gender of Pandaren… Their emotes, the movement of the face itself, everything about it feels animated. I would love to see a revamp of the “classic” races in this vein. I, for one, am an athletically built, average height male. I don’t, however, have a tendency to design characters based upon that composition or an imagined ideal. I’ve played every race in WoW for at least a short time, and so far my favorites (aesthetically) are the Dwarves and the Gnomes.

    My question to Blizz regarding body composition is “why does my scholarly, deeply academic mage look like he spends more time hefting iron and shot-putting anvils than pouring through ancient tomes?” Seriously, every male model in the game (except trolls and goblins) is built like an offensive lineman, including the tragically effeminate blood elves.

  3. December 6, 2012 12:07 pm

    Great read! I’ve grappled with trying to find my identity among the various races recently in my priest – and like you, I can handle all the races except orcs and dwarves. You’re absolutely right that there’s an eternal tension between having our characters be idealised versions or closer to the real thing. For me, there is always the dilemma between going short and cute for the gnome personality that I like and relate to, and going for the slimmer taller models that are idealised versions. Endless race changes are testament to this ongoing conflict. :)

    Somehow, I just haven’t been able to warm up to female pandaren. I can’t quite put my finger on it – I admire their personalities, I like that they’re not the stereotypical sexy which is a nice relief, and I love their lore – but when I make one, it looks like a stranger to me. I have trouble relating and putting myself in her shoes – so when I watch her on the screen its as though I’m watching someone run – just not any form of me. Interestingly, despite being called miniature by my friends, I relate more to my night elf at the moment than a female pandaren. I have no clue why its this way :)

    On a side note, I’d love to see Blizzard go the extra mile and make body shape/ fitness relate to the class being played. It would be a world where scholarly mages wouldn’t look like they worked out 8 hours a day and blood elf warriors wouldn’t have “noodle arms” as one forum poster put it, to carry their gigantic weapons.

  4. Michelle permalink
    January 6, 2013 3:43 am

    I have to agree with you entirely. The pandaren ate easily my favorite race, aesthetically and lore based. I, myself, and as a female gamer, find the female pandaren to be a refreshing change. And, on a more personal note, find the female pandaren to be the best looking race. Enough to call them sexy. But, for all the good things about them, WHY the absolute foof does everyone in pandaria treat me like an orc or something? Is it really that hard to add in some extra dialogue blizz?

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