On Gears of War 3’s women warriors

The Gears of War franchise and I have a history, punctuated by a blog post I made a year and a half ago about the rumor that Gears 3 would be including a female character. I also wrote about the franchise's inclusion of rape camps in its extended canon.

Jilane's "breeding farms" almost feel like a dirty little secret, considering how few people have sought out the Gears collection of art books, comics, and novels. If you only play the video games, you might miss a few things. I've seen a lot of comments asking where all of Gears 3's new characters came from. Why are there suddenly women with guns? The COG allows women to fight? Since when?

Women have fought for the COG since before Gears began, according to the extended canon. Anya's mother, Helena Stroud, served in the army, and she even trained Marcus and Dom for combat. The COG developed "breeding farms" in response to the Locust epidemic, deciding that women's wombs were better tools than their trigger fingers.

The complete lack of women in the first Gears of War game didn't seem peculiar to most gamers. Shooters about epic battles tend to feature men and just men. The numerous comments on my original posts about Gears's female characters explained to me that women shouldn't become soldiers, you see, because they are physically weaker. Sure, whatever, but when there are monsters popping out of the ground and 99% of humanity has been slaughtered, you start handing weapons to everyone who's smart enough to understand what "point and shoot" means. I'm talking about the women and children, people.

Leave it to the constantly blundering COG government to think that forcing women to become womb slaves makes sense in light of the Locust situation. The planet Sera doesn't have eighteen years to wait for offspring to grow into soldiers. Every single day that humanity continues to survive at all is a victory. Time is of the essence. Rape camps are deplorable and horrifying on their own, but in this case, they're also a huge tactical misstep, to the point of unrealism.

The COG has collapsed in Gears 3, and the women finally have guns. These two facts seem to be related, although the game never calls attention to it; no mention is made of Jilane's camps. The women carry the same guns as the men. They have the same number of hit points. They don't look as muscular, but they still look capable of curb-stomping Locust heads. And they do, with their voice actresses screaming bloody murder whenever the scene calls for it.

But even though the stats behind the female characters render them equal to their male counterparts - whether that makes sense or not, since all the men appear to be on steroids and the women do not - the dialogue does not offer them the same consideration. An unpleasant scene about Sam potentially being traded as a sex slave in exchange for food made it into my review of the game, and a similar incident happens with Anya Stroud as well, later on in the story. Both Anya and Sam, being in the army, have doubtless had to deal with intense sexual harassment, or worse, for their entire careers. Sam tends to react to situations by making jokes or side-stepping the problem; Anya tends to be up front and serious. I didn't like seeing Anya and Sam get harassed, but these incidents do allow us a glimpse into their constant struggle, as women in a man's world.

I've long seen the slow inclusion of female characters in games as an unintentional metaphor for the inclusion of women gamers in gaming cliques, forums, arcades, and LAN parties across the globe. Yes, in the physical realm, women statistically tend to be physically weaker. There are some simple facts about muscle formation and metabolisms that no one's going to deny, here. But in the video game world? In the fantasy world of Locusts and chainsaw-guns and revival systems? We should all be equal, theoretically. It's something that fighting games have figured out: could Sonya Blade really kick Johnny Cage's ass in real life? Probably not, but in the video game, the answer to that question relies on how good the minds behind the controllers are, not on the size of Sonya's muscles. It's about the game, and it's about the players playing that game.

And women play Gears of War. We always have, since the first title, and we still do now. It comes as a surprise to many, especially since Gears is considered one of the most masculine shooters of them all, but it's one of my favorites and it probably always will be. I can't possibly be the only woman who feels that way. And now, Gears 3 can go down in history as a shooter that actually incorporates playable female fighters - more than one, with different personalities, who all survive to the end of the game, and who deserve and demand respect. They didn't even have to trick their way into the game with sex appeal, as Samus Aran did in her early red-bikini days.

I'm not able to forget about the "breeding farms" sub-plot. It lingers in the back of my mind every time I re-play the Gears campaigns. Of course, this isn't the first sci-fi story to include that plot device (see: Dune, Battlestar Galactica, Mass Effect 2 ... the list goes on). The very idea of a breeding farm disgusts me on every level. We are meant to assume that it is the COG that is too misogynistic to realize the fighting power that they're wasting, not the game writers and creators. I think most people who play this game understand that distinction. But it's also important to remember that the misogynists who play this game don't see the COG's breeding camps as both villainous and tactically idiotic. I've read an awful lot of comments from people who agree with the COG on this one. Because women can't have guns, damn it - that's so unrealistic. Women are supposed to make babies, whether they want to or not, and they need to get the fuck out of our shooting area. That's the reaction I saw, over and over, as gamers reacted to the news of the game's inclusion of women fighters.

What this sentiment really means, in the context of gaming, is that women can't play shooters. It may not seem like it's that simple, but it is. Women don't like competitive games, you see - we like games about feelings, and farms, and sparkly fairies! Or maybe that's just what we all have to tell ourselves, to keep from admitting the scary truth that feminine gender roles are just as performance-based as Marcus Fenix's glares and comically large muscles. It's not real. It's a fantasy, and it's one we all partake in, to varying degrees. Some women fit the mold of what's "expected", and some don't, and that's all fine. In reality, most of us do not conform to the stereotypes that come along with our genders, and instead we pick and choose which gender norms we'd like to follow and hope no one bothers us too much about it. And those of us who'd prefer to wield a chainsaw-mounted Lancer rather than a healing staff are playing Gears of War - not that there's anything wrong with healing staffs, mind you, whether those staffs are wielded by men or women or people who reject the gender binary entirely.

But those femme-presenting among us who do venture into hyper-masculine spheres get treated very similarly to the way Anya Stroud and Sam Byrne are treated in this game. We get reduced to being Women, or wombs, and shouldn't we be off making babies or sandwiches or something, somewhere else, not here, because we're muddying up this masculine game with our femininity. We get looks of surprise and alarm and shock - you play this? This game? We get half-propositioned, half-mocked in ways that are meant to be "jokes," sort of, except it's not really a joke at all, is it. We could try to downplay our femininity, or play along with misogynist jokes ‘til we half-believe them, in an effort to fit in - but that never really does the trick, because at the end of the day, you're still The Other. Even if you don't try to rock the boat, you're already causing an upset just by being there. So you may as well rock harder.


I've seen some complaints about the female characters in Gears of War 3. Tom Chick's hilarious send-up of Gears's ham-fisted narrative made me laugh, but I took issue with his claim that the women in this game are not "actual" women. What does that even mean? What are "actual" women supposed to be like?

I'm an "actual" woman - although I'm not sure I'd meet Tom Chick's expectations for one - and quite frankly, the women in this game are a far better reflection of me than any other game I've seen this year. But the women in Gears of War 3 aren't representative of all women. To even suggest that would be to say that women are interchangeable. That there is some fundamental thing about women everywhere that must be incorporated into all female characters in order to make them "actual" women.

I reject that claim. What makes a female character good, to me, is the same thing that makes a male character - any character - good. Do they seem real? Do they seem like a real person, who has had real experiences that have shaped them into who they are? Do their actions make sense to me? Can I imagine what it would be like, to be them?

Gears is full of cartoonish archetypes, but the women of Gears 3 seem quite "actual" to me, considering. Sam's jokes feel like a coping mechanism, not unlike her squad leader Cole's ridiculous "Cole Train" persona - it's a face you put on in a stressful situation to hide your fear, and it's surprisingly humanizing. Meanwhile, the dissonance between Anya's patient, soft voice while strategizing and her gritty warrior screams in battle serve to remind us how much she's been through and how well she's managed it. They are video game characters, participating in a mostly-nonsense video game story that focuses far more on battle sequences than character development, so the bar is low for what qualifies as "good". But I can't think of many ways that the game could have done these women better, other than that I wish I could have spent more time with them. Sure, the sexual harassment moments made me cringe - but I have to admit, those scenes do feel realistic, and that's why they disturb me.

The male soldiers treat their new female comrades with about as much respect as you'd think. A few strained jokes and a couple awkward conversations did happen, but overall, the soldiers respected each other. It was the kind of respect that means well, but could really use practice - perhaps they'd have all done better if the women had shown up sooner.

In one of the game's final scenes, Baird does try to make it up to Sam - he says he hopes she'll be okay, and it's obvious he means it. Even though Sam and Baird aren't friends, they're still both soldiers, and that means something. They share something. They can establish a connection on that alone, and respect what that connection means. It sure won't be easy, and Baird probably bit off more than he could chew with that sex-in-exchange-for-bacon joke, but he's slowly but surely becoming self-aware enough to realize that.

And if that's not a realistic portrayal of where gamers are at on gender right now, I'm not sure what is.

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