‘Female Protagonist” – More harm than good

The all-female lead Ghostbusters movie bombed recently. I didn’t see it, mostly because I don’t care for that franchise and because previews looked terrible, but also in part because ‘all female’ or ‘female lead’ marketing puts me off. And not just for movies.

Steam has game tags, and one of those tags is “female protagonist, and basically every game I see with that tag I almost instantly dismiss (it also doesn’t help that, as far as I’ve seen, those games also just generally look terrible). This isn’t because I ‘hate women’, or even because I don’t want to play a female character or watch a movie with females in primary roles. I’ve played Queen Elizabeth in Civilization and Ashe in LoL, ok?! (read in “I have lots of black friends” voice).

What I am avoiding however is being force-fed ‘female power’ during a movie or a game, and such tags, or in the case of Ghostbusters, such a strong marketing push around the actors being female, generally do that. I’m for equality, in that I don’t want to treat women differently than men. There is no ‘male protagonist’ tag on Steam, and if there was and it was used the same way the female protagonist tag was used, I’d avoid those games too.

I also think such heavy-handed positioning doesn’t really help you succeed, or even drive your message home to ‘convert’ anyone. I don’t think I’m alone in that such marketing pushes people away, and I also don’t believe it draws others in to replace those it repels. Did a lot of people see Ghostbusters in large part because they wanted to support an all-female cast? The results suggest ‘no’. Same for the Steam tag; do a lot of gamers seek out and purchase games based on that style of marketing? I certainly don’t, and I don’t see those titles on the top charts either.

Tomb Raider was (is?) a successful franchise, mostly in gaming, but also with some cross-over into cinema. The lead was a female. But was that point ever driven home as hard as it was for Ghostbusters? In other words, let the product’s quality itself do the talking, and if it results in a certain subset of the population feeling good about that or identifying with it, that should be viewed as a bonus, not as the focus. Because when you do make it the focus, you overshadow the other aspects of the product that most people are actually interested in, like is movie X worth seeing, or is game Y fun to play.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
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36 Responses to ‘Female Protagonist” – More harm than good

  1. Griddlebone says:

    I’d agree with you, except the gaming audience is corrosively, mind-numbingly toxic when it comes to understanding the first thing to do with gender relations. In certain fields (film, especially non-blockbuster film) we’re certainly well on the path to normality and there’s no need for a song and dance anymore, but then the consumers of films are a cut above gamers.

    To be blunt, gamers are a fucking thick bunch of people (not helped by having loads of young, poorly educated men who think because they play games they’re intellectually superior making up the audience) who need the message rammed home as hard and as fast as possible; hopefully so that the insane and tragically misinformed psuedo-political arguments that seem to go hand in hand with games discussion can finally be put to bed. I mean is ‘female protagonist’ really any worse than ‘big dude with stupid armour and arms’ in terms of propagating a selling point that’s irrelevant to gameplay?

  2. Esteban says:

    I agree with you on a visceral level – I don’t like entertainment being politically didactic in general – but it is still true that protagonists in games are generally men, with all the associated tropes. If that were reversed, I could see myself using that tag occasionally to filter for games where the protagonist is of my gender, just for easier immersion.

  3. coppertopper says:

    Maybe if you’re a parent looking for very specific themes for a game for your kids? Not saying Lara Croft is the best choice for a role model here lol but if ‘female protagonist’ might be something that would be of interest to a parent who was going to play a game with a child that specific tag would be important. I get your point though – and sales over the long term usually support quality games despite the tags they might carry.

  4. W says:

    Interesting take on Ghostbusters I suppose. I never saw a lot of marketing centered around “all female leads” other than when they were pushing back against the childish “ruined my childhood” argument made by overly aggressive fans of the original.

    And you’re right. It was a bad movie. Good acting but horrible writing.

  5. mannawanna says:

    Tomb Raider’s protagonist was marketed (and designed) as a running, jumping sex symbol. Poor choice of comparison. The fact that you would NOT see or buy something solely on the basis of whether or not it has all female leads is troubling. And disappointing. This was probably one of those things you should have just kept to yourself.

    • SynCaine says:

      That was the original pitch for TR, yes. Once it also became a movie franchise (Jolie is good looking, yup, but she brings far more than that, just like Croft), and most recent games, that’s really not the case. Yet the games still do well. I think they wouldn’t do nearly as well if the marketing pitch around Lara was “Fem-power Croft!” or whatever.

  6. Jenks says:

    I don’t care about the games/movies/etc themselves or tags or whatever having female leads, I just hate the liberal shitheads who think they can call you a sexist for not liking something. You didn’t like the new Ghostbusters? Obviously you’re a sexist. They’re the exact same people who will say if you don’t think Obama is a good president, you are obviously a racist. These people are hardcore fascists and they’re capable of doing a lot of harm to individuals for “wrongthink.” So what happens after a while is you see enough of that and it starts making an impression on you. I think Melissa McCarthy and Kate McKinnon are really funny, I don’t think Kristen Wiig or Leslie Jones are funny at all, so I was on the fence about going to see it. Thinking about all the little fascist internet warriors ready to call me a misogynist, I didn’t go see it because fuck them.

    • Amalec says:

      I was going to sarcastically reword your post, but I honestly don’t get it so instead I’ll be frank:

      What’s the ethical difference between someone calling you a racist for having opinions they disagree with and someone calling them a fascist for having opinions (on you being a racist) they disagree with?

      You’re defending defending your right to not have people call you mean names while simultaneously calling them mean names.

      • Jenks says:

        “What’s the ethical difference between someone calling you a racist for having opinions they disagree with and someone calling them a fascist for having opinions (on you being a racist) they disagree with?”

        Are you fucking serious? These people publicly shame you, they form groups to harass people who think differently than them, and go to great lengths to ruin lives including suing them or getting them fired for using language they don’t agree with. They’re fascists. You’re comparing that to someone who doesn’t want to see Ghostbusters? Get a clue.

        • Amalec says:

          Sounds to me like you’d like to do exactly the same to them. Why else are you posting here trying to convince others’ that they’re fascists? Your problem seems to be that no one takes you seriously.

        • Amalec says:

          To break this down for you:

          If they’re *fascists* for calling you mean names and trying to convince other people to do the same – what are you for calling them mean names (fascist!) and trying to convince other people the same?

        • Esteban says:

          You seem to be pretty comfortable with expressing your views. Not like a man hounded into frightened silence by some Orwellian apparatus at all. They call you sexist, you call them fascist for calling you sexist. Some guy chimes in about irony. Seems like free speech has triumphed here on SynCaine’s humble blog.

          Maybe it’s a Spanish thing, because actual (Francoist) fascism is still within living memory back home, but I would be hesitant to slap that label on what amounts to robust civil rights activism. From where I am sitting, there seems to be only one prospective caudillo presently in contention in the States.

        • Jenks says:

          “Sounds to me like you’d like to do exactly the same to them.”

          Sounds like you’re an idiot, I don’t even have a Twitter account nevermind try to find anyone’s real identities to try to have them fired from their job. You’re truly a complete moron. I’d never silence someone else’s views, so that means I’m the same as someone trying to silence opposing views because I’m calling them out? What you are saying is the equivalent of someone calling someone who committed rape a “rapist,” and telling that person they are the same as the rapist because they called them a name. You are retarded.

          “You seem to be pretty comfortable with expressing your views. Not like a man hounded into frightened silence by some Orwellian apparatus at all. ”

          So fucking wrong it hurts. I can’t even have a facebook or twitter account because of this very reason. I can’t afford the legal fees if some fascist decides they want to silence me.

        • Griddlebone says:

          Genuinely, do you not get bored of living in paranoia of a non-existent liberal militia and a government than in all probability doesn’t give a shit about you?

          inb4 nsa

  7. Eph says:

    I like my protagonists like I like my Commander Shepard: strong, witty and preferably female.

  8. Male protagonist as a tag would be utterly meaningless considering 80 to 90% of games have a male protag (pulled that number out of my ass) whereas female led, can be important for many considering they might want to play as a character that better represents them, a game that may feel more immersive to them.

    Sometimes, yes it’s probably used as a marketing tool but I think the majority of times that’s just the story they chose. The problem is it’s often so different than what we usually get that it’s easy to single that aspect out alone. We don’t consider the first ghostbusters to be a Male power fantasy movie even though it’s marketing stuff centered on it’s cast as well – and there are so many other dude brow action teams out there as well. An all female action movie is just so incredibly rare that it’s like seeing a fucking unicorn, you can’t help but fixate on it. Not a bad thing as I kind of want options, but may be to you.

    As for games I think that’s more because female protag games just aren’t in the genres you would usually play and enjoy. They tend to be narrative games, platformers and puzzlers rather than big action games. We still see those two, and especially ones where you get to pick now between male and female but one’s that are solely female are still rare – which is why the tag works.

    • and are you kidding about tomb raider lol – the promotional material was almost solely focused on her ass in the early era – not to mention the pyramid tits. OF course it was centered on her as a woman but as an appealing one to men, so it gets a pass.

    • Caldazar says:

      I agree completely with Eri-mon

      Female Protagonist is just a descriptive tag on steam, it has no political agenda, it is just a descriptor. Doesn’t have anything to do with the Ghostbusters drama.

      PS: Some games with the female protagonist tag on steam:
      Dark Souls 3, Mass Effect, Resident Evil, Portal, Tomb Raider, Dishonoured 2, FFXIII,…

    • SynCaine says:

      The new Ghostbusters unicorn was actually something most people chose NOT to see, which is my point. It was most certainly a bad thing to most involved, especially those who lost money or career power due to it. Not to mention it puts another brick on the “don’t do this, it doesn’t work” wall, which ends up hurting movies overall in terms of seeing a good movie that just happens to feature females.

      My point is similar for games. For all the good that tag might do to get women who are looking for women-based games to find such titles, it likely has more of a negative impact on a title to the general audience, which in turn means fewer such games, and certainly fewer such games with the budget to be something big and special.

      Edit: And it actually works the same way for men. Pitch a drink too hard as ‘manly’ to me, and I’m out. Pitch it as a good drink, and I’m at least interested, whether that drink is perceived as ‘for guys’ or a ‘women’ drink.
      Its self-defeating. If you want more quality games/movies with featured females, make a good movie/game that works, and gains something from that female lead. Shoehorning females into something for the sake of females doesn’t work, just like trying to shoehorn the fact that something features a female is ‘the point’ also doesn’t work/help.

      • Anonymous says:

        I think the shoehorning woman thing is a bit of a myth, considering how hard it can be for games, and probably movies to get financed, produced and published if they have a female lead.

        And I think you might be misconstruing general audience, last I heard it was around 50/50 for games

        And the ghostbusters thing still seems like a silly drama

        • SynCaine says:

          Am I?


          (Not to say Looper.com, whatever that is, is the be-all-end-all, but its at least ‘something’, and that was just the first result from Google)

        • sorry syncaine-not sure what your point is there -searching for what. Fan blog ideas for movie remakes? pretty sure that’s not indicative of how the industry determines the next movie to get 100s of millions

        • SynCaine says:

          Another item:


          I’m more inclined to see a movie if it has the right cast, not if the cast is ‘diverse’. Now maybe a non-white female (imagine if that article was that they were searching for a non-black male, oh the outrage it would cause) fits the specific role they have in mind, but for me it comes off far more as “non-white male worked in a SW movie just now, milk that” than casting for a specific role.

        • Maineiac says:

          This is the problem I’m having with the new Star Trek series (aside from the dumbass decision to keep it online only). The producers have gone out of the way to state that the show will be diverse. “It’s going to have a female lead!” “There will be gay/trans characters!” How about focusing on a good story? To me it seems like they are just ticking boxes on the diversity checklist rather than focusing on making good TV.

          Also – DS9 was the best Trek and I didn’t go see Ghostbusters. ;-)

        • once again it seems like you are focusing on the unicorn in the room. It is so odd just because it has been the complete opposite for so long. Pretty much every large franchise for decades has been inundated with the same type of person over and over again. No one was stopping to think or really create anything different and so that same archetype keep . It’s tired and boring at this stage and while some stories are definitely interesting I think it’s an archetype that’s almost been bled dry.

          A variety of people just creates the opportunity for more stories, various styles of storytelling and what I would think is an overall better story. Many have basically handicapped the stories they are able to create. I get that because it’s so different than the norm it’s a shock and can feel like Diversity just for the sake of it but in reality it’s just creating more parity in storytelling. The majority of stories are still going to be male power fantasy focused – we can still see that in games, movies, and comics – but now the balance seems to be getting far better but as a female watcher and player – my bias is obvious. As is yours.

          And the opposite happens and absolute shit load where we see white men taking over ethnic roles. White washing is a rather prominent facet in the movie industry, for whatever reason that may be.

          @Maineiac – I don’t consider diversity and good story as mutually exclusive… quite the opposite

        • oh yeh – Voyager girl myself haha but DS9 is definitely second

  9. DS says:

    Maybe, just maybe, it’s not fucking for you and you don’t have to watch it, so shut your goddamn white boy mouth and let the people who care see it.
    As a gentle suggestion.

    • SynCaine says:

      The problem is that ‘people who care to see it’ is such a small group in this case that they don’t matter for any project larger than a garage kickstarter, which is why plans for the sequel are already in the trashcan.

  10. Matt says:

    I think the problem here is less about the female protagonist tag and more about how social justice nutters have completely politicized this issue such that a female protagonist can’t be seen apart from the ongoing Holy War Against Sexism. Imagine if, instead of constant Sarkeesianish scolding, these people had just quietly supported or even made the kind of games they’d like to see. We’d have the diversity then, but not the acrimony, which raises the question of how much of this is just virtue signaling anyway.

  11. Kobeathris says:

    Aren’t the tags on steam user defined? When I sign in and look at tags, that is what it says. So, a company makes a game, that game has a female lead, and users tag it as such. What, exactly, is the point of this post? The only way to avoid that tag would be to not have female leads in games at all, which I don’t think was your intent. I mean, I guess steam could go through and cull the tag, but then wouldn’t that be weird too, and then, would people look at it as censorship or something? I can already see that argument, “I tagged this game female protagonist, but because steam doesn’t want people to see how much the SJWs are taking over gaming, they removed it, rabble rabble rabble…”

    • SynCaine says:

      They are user defined. The point of the post is that while pro-female people think the tags helps the game and their cause, my point is that it hurts it, because ultimately the tag (or for movies, pushing the ‘all female’ angle) drives more people away then it brings in.

      • Kobeathris says:

        I think the mistake there is assuming the cause is changing people through the mediums of movies or games. I may be completely misreading this, but the goal seems to be to have more games and movies that come from a female point of view and/or that cater to a female audience. I don’t think they care one whit if it draws others in except in so far as sales figures convince studios that they are a demographic worth catering to. Women make up slightly more than 50% of the population, they don’t need men playing their games or watching their movies to be a block worth selling to. They need other women to take up the hobby and fandom.

        • SynCaine says:

          I disagree. A mass market product needs both males and females to like it in order to succeed. Avatar (movie) wasn’t the biggest movie in the world because it was a huge hit with males, it was huge because it was for everyone. Same for WoW, it has a huge female following.

          Now if the goal is to release some niche product aimed at just one demographic, be it The Expendables and males, or… something and females, that’s fine. But if you want that product to cross over into the main stream and really be a huge deal, you need both.

        • Kobeathris says:

          No, it really doesn’t. Titanic sold 35% more tickets than Avatar did while appealing to a primarily female audience. I couldn’t find ticket numbers, but the Twilight franchise is over a billion in ticket sales domestic. Like it or not, those are mainstream numbers. Women have plenty of clout to make some company a lot of money when they release the right game or movie. Now, that isn’t saying that Sony being cynical about it and saying “Hey, you know how we can bring the women in? Ghostbusters, but with women!” is a good idea, but the fact remains that bringing women into video games is a potentially huge market, and when someone does it successfully, it won’t matter if it is with a game that appeals to men or not. It’s not like mobile and Facebook games haven’t already started priming this pump anyway, eventually someone is going to come along and make a killing.

        • SynCaine says:

          And neither Titanic nor even Twilight were pushed as female-power movies. Twilight certainly aimed at women (by casting in-shape white young men who never wore shirts…), and Titanic had Leo, but again, neither was pushed heavily as “female in lead role, how heroic!”

        • Anonymous says:

          How about hunger games?

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