The New Witcher 3 Trailer, and Sexism

14 Aug
August 14, 2013

A new Witcher 3 trailer has been released recently, and it’s rather lovely.

Personally, I rather enjoyed the trailer. It’s bog-standard “gritty” heroic fantasy, but it still stirs the teenage boy in me.

That aside, there was a short discussion online about whether it’s “sexist” or not.

Now, before going any further, I will say that one of the most aggravating aspects of these debates is the lack of nuance involved. People want it black and white. Either it’s good or it’s bad. Totally acceptable or monstrous and contemptible. People struggle with the idea that something might be a little bit problematic. Like, 5%. And, that it’s ok to enjoy something while still being critical of some aspects of it. Holding both the thoughts “I found this enjoyable” and “I see it manifesting a problematic pattern worth discussing” at the same time, about the same subject. It’s a real problem, this lack of nuance, and it taints these discussions. Discuss critically anything that someone somewhere enjoyed and you’re sure to see defensiveness.

Let’s try not to do that, in general, please.

That out the way, let’s examine the video. It’s a fairly straightforward damsel in distress scenario. Being a trailer, it’s got to communicate its context quickly, and generally writers achieve that by relying on cliches.

The Witcher is the morally conflicted, gritty anti-hero, the woman is the innocent victim, her persecutors are evil dudes.

Examine how you know this. The woman in the video is accused of “murder of the wounded, looting, cannibalism.” Now, those are nasty things to have done. If we thought it was true we might be convinced that we’re seeing a righteous punishment of the wicked. Which is what you see at the end of the trailer. Notice how you don’t feel sympathy for the dude about to be executed, whose crimes, that you can see, are punching a lady and almost executing her. Yet we don’t for a second entertain the notion that the woman is a monster being righteously punished for her wickedness. You don’t feel that same “Yes! The monster is getting its just deserts!” even though you don’t know for sure that she didn’t do those horrible things. We’re happy she escaped in the end, even though she may actually be a cannibal.

Why? It’s because we’re offered cliches, framing elements to guide our understanding of the context, and we easily latch onto them. Our minds slide into the comfortable, familiar grooves painted by the “language” of the scene.

The order comes from a distant Emperor, an Authority figure. We’ve instantly got the little guy vs The Man narrative to ground us in, reinforced by how it’s a group of dudes vs one defenseless person. The guards sound sneering and mean, so we definitely know they are bad people. And they are also beating her, which is a sure sign they are the evil ones. Because guards on the side of righteousness are upstanding, noble, and never take pleasure in pain.

Also, the woman is…a woman. Woman are generally seen to be more innocent than men, especially youthful, attractive women, and she’s crying for help (who wouldn’t cry for help?) Without any other cues at all, if you just had a young attractive woman in distress, the instinctive side to fall on is the woman as the victim. A crying woman, like a crying child, is a lazy writing shorthand. It tells you, the viewer, who you are supposed to sympathize with, without establishing via a proper narrative which character is actually most deserving of sympathy or justice. The cliche is a shortcut to character building.

So, in this case, the woman isn’t a character at all, she’s a symbolic representation of victimhood. Really, besides Geralt, none of the players in that scene is anything but an iconic representation of an idea. Which is fine…except that it’s problematic that the symbol of victimhood usually has one particular gender.

The problem comes back to the lazy shorthand, of using “woman” as a placeholder for “victim.” Yes, of course, women are often the victims of violence. It’s a scenario that can and does happen, in the past and in the present. But storytelling involves conscious choices. And the conscious choice being made, over and over, by writers, is to use “female” to mean “victim.”

Geralt is a locked character, from the narrative perspective. It has to be him in the role of the hero for it to be a Witcher game. The nature and roles of the rest of the characters are not. The victim could have been any gender. A male, wrongly accused by thuggish louts, beaten and about to be executed fits the scene as well as a quivering female. An old, fat woman also fits. You can slot just about any character in there and have them be sympathetic for the viewer, in that situation. But the choice was made to make it a young female.

And that one choice, alone, doesn’t mean anything. If the choice is random, and you happen to choose a young woman once, it means nothing. However, if you take a sample of 100 such trailers, sample them, and 70% or 80% or even 90% of the time, that victim role is filled by one particular variation of the many choices available, you know there is a bias at work, pulling the results away from pure randomness. This is how you evaluate the more subtle forms of bias, not by single anecdotes but by the pattern formed by all the anecdotes examined together as a group.

Now, I liked the Witcher trailer, as I said. But I can also see how it does fit into the damsel in distress trope, how the storytelling relies on lazy cliche, and how that trope fits into a greater pattern of sexism, which generally manifests in gaming as a bias toward certain cliches, certain narratives, repeated treatment of certain groups of characters in certain ways. There IS sexism there, even if unintended by the devs, and I say that even though I enjoyed the video overall.

23 replies
  1. Phaezen says:

    If I may offer an alternate view.

    Would Gerald’s actions have been different if it was a young man as the victim? Is Gerald rushing to aid her just because she is female?

    The character of Gerald as established by the novels and the previous games would suggest no.

    Gerald is reacting to the actions of the guards, if they had simply captured her and hung her for the crimes she is accused of he would have carried on. But, by torturing her and extending her pain they have in turn become the monsters that he hunts.

    When Gerald kills those he deems as evil he kills quickly without drawing their death out.

    From Gerald’s point of view committing evil to fight evil only perpetuates the evil. There are no degrees of evil. If you have to kill to stop something, kill but leave it at that.

  2. gareth says:

    That’s not really an ‘alternate’ view, per se, as the point made wasn’t about Geralt’s motivations, nor did I suggest that Geralt would have reacted differently if the victim in that situation was male.

  3. Feminazi says:

    Oh look, another person jumping on the sexism bandwagon. Games are games, fictional fantasy adventures. Why don’t you try and do something real and concrete to make a difference in the world if sexism is such a huge concern to you. Oh wait, because it’s easier to be an armchair expert and score brownie points with modern day feminists who have a false sense of entitlement when they were brought up in a western culture with the ability to become whatever they want to be if they work hard enough for it. Instead they choose to be whiny little bitches, which funnily enough, makes them sexist as they portray the same trope they are fighting against.

  4. gareth says:

    “Why don’t you try and do something real and concrete to make a difference in the world if sexism is such a huge concern to you.”

    Analysis and discussion IS “doing something real.” It amuses me that you think it isn’t.

    A rule for the future, if you want to post comments here. Whether you agree or disagree with me, try to have a meaningful point to put across civilly instead of simply venting your spleen.

    I don’t have a high tolerance level for people who shit on their hands then smear it on the walls of over peoples houses.

  5. Feminazi says:

    Analysis and discussion is not something real. You can talk for ages, and still it would accomplish nothing. Then again, that seems to be the only thing you and your feminist friends are good at. All talk, no action. I don’t have a tolerance for your kind of people at all. Your house should be covered in shit, because that’s pretty much the smell your silly article gives off.

  6. Maximillion says:

    – Opens article by appealing to nuance and reasoned discussion.
    – Gets stupid comments from a defensive fan that can’t bear to hear anything about sexism without getting defensive.

    Good article, Gareth. Pity that the ones who need to hear it the most are also the ones most likely to ignore it out of bias confirmation, as evidenced by our friend in the comments with the carefully nuanced name of feminazi. Some people don’t see anything but what they want to see.

    Don’t let it get to you and keep working on the game.

  7. Drav says:

    It’s kind of a weird trailer, since they make a point to mention that she was accused of grave robbing/cannibalism but then, as you say, play it as a straight Damsel in Distress scenario, which messes with the tone of the whole scene. Both Witcher games had a quest where you’re naturally lead to take the young, attractive suppliant’s word at face value, only to find out there was far more to the story later on. I suspect there will be a follow-up trailer to this that does something similar.

  8. gareth says:

    Drav – Yeah, it’s quite possible they plan to subvert the trope. As both you and Phaezen mention, they have done that in the previous two games, so it’s quite possible.

    But it does SEEM to present a complete narrative arc there. Which is one of the dangers you run, when subverting tropes, that for a while at least you look exactly like the trope you’re planning to subvert.

    Sometimes, you can turn people off before they get to the clever bit. It’s a tricky line to walk, if you don’t make your audience aware of the turnaround quickly.

  9. C. says:

    Just one thing, RE: “And that one choice, alone, doesn’t mean anything. If the choice is random, and you happen to choose a young woman once, it means nothing.”

    Don’t agree. That one choice does matter, precisely because it could not be random. Those Polish dudes did not reinvent the damsel-in-distress by pure chance, they consciously chose to use that particular cliche, because they are sexist muppets. Polish fandom is known to be fairly right-wing and hence quite sexist.

    BTW Bolanda (aka Potatoland) itself is quite a racist, sexist and nationalistic shithole. One of the reasons I don’t touch Polish games. (And Polish passport is one of the three I happen to own.)

  10. Feminazi says:

    Funny enough, by the sounds of all of the above idiots, if we were ever to see another scenario where a guy has to save a girl, it will be labelled as sexist.

    No, I’m not a fan of the games either, but I am a true feminist who actually works toward real causes like fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan instead of trying to find sexism in games.

    You guys are a bunch of muppets who are obviously looking for some sort of acknowledgement from feminist groups, yet you’re getting the wrong end of the stick.

  11. C. says:

    What a lovely troll!

  12. gareth says:

    @C – Sure, that one choice does matter, put in context.

    But if you knew nothing of the background of the developers, the attitudes of the countries they come from, the types of tropes you regularly see in games etc, and simply judged by that video alone, you couldn’t necessarily draw a conclusion. It’s only in the context of other existing data* can you really say that it fits a pre-existing sexist pattern, is what I was saying. 😉

    (*For this type of sexism, the subtle type. If it was just a blatant “make me a sammich” joke, you can generally judge by even one instance.)

    @Feminazi – You realize that I’m only approving your comments because I’m amused at how good a job you’re doing at proving the point I made about defensiveness, right?

    At least, in the short-term. It does tend to get boring pretty quickly.

    Oh, did you just wheel out a women who disagrees with feminism to “prove” feminism is wrong? How cute.

    Here’s a convenient flowchart. Before you post another one of your tired rants, follow the chart and find the response to it, so no one else needs to bother.

  13. Feminazi says:

    Needing a flowchart simply proves that you’re not applying any kind of critical thinking and just following the thoughts of the mainstream feminists, who as I said before, have a false sense of entitlement seeking special treatment instead of actual equality.

    Now now silly sheep, why don’t you come up with something original for once, and btw, the feminist girl you’re trying to impress, is still not going to give you the sympathy bang.

  14. gareth says:

    “who as I said before, have a false sense of entitlement seeking special treatment instead of actual equality.”

    Well, if you said so then it MUST be true.

  15. Ben says:

    I came across this analysis while googling because I’d heard there were some issues discussed with the Witcher 3, but I didn’t know what they were. Just want to say good job. Relying on tropes doesn’t invalidate a whole game, and the persistence of tropes *also* doesn’t mean that, in real life, it would be a bad thing to help a woman in need. These are straw men that weak people want to run to.

    The fact is that consistently repeating a narrative that makes women out to be weak, or minorities to be evil, or anything like that, is insidious and damaging. It creates prejudices that we sometimes don’t even recognize (if you find yourself saying “so-and-so hates men” because he or she objects to these tropes, you yourself have been affected by these repetitive storylines). It may not be the creator’s intent! It does not make the creator a bad person (though it might, at least, make them irresponsible). But we have to be able to analyze these things, and see the damage they might cause without condemning the entire work or the creators. And the more we can talk about them and recognize their potential effect, the better off the industry will be and society will be. The less likely a creator will be in the future to unknowingly perpetuate negative stereotypes.

    Basically I’m saying what you’re saying. I just know that stuff like this is a lightning rod for people who show up to shout insults and plug their ears, so I wanted to be someone who rejects that and says “good job.”

    Questionable decision-making for this trailer aside, I’m pretty excited to play this game. It looks fun, and visually incredible.

  16. Ishtar says:

    Just showing rather late support for a good, nuanced article! Your point about both appreciating and being critical about the same subject is spot on, but I find it sad that it needs to be said. Of course you could like Star Wars while at the same time thinking Chewbacca is ridiculous, you could like a particular Mel Gibson movie and still detest the man himself, or you could find joy in whatever and hate whatever part of that whatever. The debate online is often so poor that an obvious point like this is overlooked.

    I found the trailer impressive but rather disturbing regarding the inherent sexism and am really not sure about the company or the game, with their track record in mind. Their portayal of women in Witcher 2 wasn’t very good and, from what I’ve seen, was abhorral in the first game. Other parts of Witcher 3 looks seriously promising though, but sexism in games has come to be so visible – and, consequently – off-putting for me that the more I see it in the industry, the more it takes away my enjoyment of games. Especially fantasy and rpgs, two favorite genres of mine. Anyyyways, we’ll see how the game turns out!

    • gareth says:

      Thank you! And yep, it’s sad that it needs to be said, but that is the unfortunate reality.

      Fingers crossed that the sketchy aspects of the game don’t drown out the rest of the experience, because as you said, it does look very promising.

  17. Billy says:

    Hey Gareth,
    I got here the same way Ben did, I preordered the game ages ago and now I’m trying to get a sense of the sort of thing I’m in for. I’m really glad you wrote this article, not enough people, and especially not enough male gamers understand the fact that designing these characters – even the ancillary ones in trailers – is a conscious choice that can either reinforce or challenge a stereotype. Great work and please keep it up, there needs to be more people like to to potentially reach those who just shut down any time they hear a woman speaking on this issue.
    Discussion can change opinion, opinion informs action. If you’re going to claim that theorising is pointless then follow through with action and stop commenting and replying every time you see something you disagree with, otherwise buy into the conversation with some dignity and leave the insults at the door.

  18. gareth says:

    Well said, Billy, and thanks for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it!

  19. Matt says:

    Great article gareth, and great comment ben! Im glad these types of discussions exist. I just read an article by CEO marcin iwinski who said the Witcher 3 creates a mature sexual atmosphere like game of thrones (when asked about its sexist undertones). This makes me feel uneasy because GOT is basically smut. I dont like the devs defense that a realistic game world must have sex to be authentic feeling. The last of us didnt, and that game excelled. And excessive sex in media is another issue anyway. The main problem the devs are avoiding is the depiction of sex through the male gaze. The 2nd Witcher actually had a peep hole that you could view a nude woman being tortured. Geralt can be a ladies man without such obvious and bold sexual exhibits. To me thats what a pornographer does, not a visual story teller. Always showing nude women while geralt has sex with his pants on is uneven, and problematic. In this way the image of woman is reduced to passive body parts to be gawked, where as geralt keeps his agency, his dignity, and his pants :p


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