Female Pandaren and Player Self-Image
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.”
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.