The fourth video of Tropes vs. Women is out and Anita Sarkeesian uses her 25 minutes to focus on two popular video game tropes that set female characters apart from male characters: specifically the “Ms. Male Character” and a revisitation of the “Smurfette Principle.” Put together, these two tropes permeate a giant portion of the well-marketed games and reflect much of our consumed video media.
The Ms. Male Character trope Sarkeesian describes as making female characters by using a male character (often the main protagonist of the series) and simply adding signifiers to the male as a blank template. These signals are often very 1950s Loony Toons aspects of “femininity” that include lipstick, big eyelashes, and more-than-often a visible pink bow.
Tugging on the same rope is the Smurfette Principle, a phrase coined to describe media franchises that are made up of almost all apparent men with only one woman amidst them. In the Smurfs, every individual in the village was a male and represented by some talent or skill; whereas the one female character, Smurfette was signified only by her gender being a woman (and not the default male smurf.) Aside from the hilarity of the obvious fridge-horror of a village made up of mostly men and one woman, this is a common trope throughout a great deal of media.
Looking at the examples that Sarkeesian brings to bear, most games that suffer from the former trope come from a cartoon lineage where the presentation of characters is simplistic or minimal. The first-best-example being Ms. Pacman rises from mere pixels and later examples including Donkey Kong Jr. involve cartoon signals for gender. The problem arises that this creates a system where male characters are signaled as default (i.e. no decoration) and female characters are signaled as template-males decorated into female characters. In this way the Ms. Male Character arrives directly with the Smurfette Principle.
Mass Effect and advertising
Video gaming is still perceived in American culture as a primarily male or masculine endeavor—and perhaps many players thought that it was hard enough to escape from gamers as immature or children. As it appears, the gamer audience is almost reaching gender parity across most genres and with mobile in the mix it’s obvious that women do game. Breaking this mold for advertising, however, is problematic especially for genres like the shooter and Mass Effect is an excellent example.
The Mass Effect series was a brilliant storytelling game with a shooter under the hood. It also enabled players to run as either gender: a male brooding Shepard or a tough-as-nails female Shepard. There is positively no difference between the two—and it’s arguable that Jennifer Hale’s voice acting simple sounded better.
The above-two tropes and our culture’s approach to media having a masculine default, however, has led to the female version of Shepard being labelled “Femshep,” where as the male version is not known a “Manshep” but instead just plain Shepard. There is also quite a fan following of the female Shepard. (There is the use of the word “BroShep” for the male Shepard; but it’s so uncommon that most fans will not have ever heard its use.)
However, BioWare sought not to advertise this particular aspect of their game—that Shepard can be male or female—and ran with an advertising angle that presented only the male Shepard. He appears on boxes, posters, Internet ads, TV ads, etc. The company’s advertising ran almost to the entire exclusion and lack of explanation that the protagonist of Mass Effect can be a man or a woman. An external viewer could be forgiven for not being aware of the work of Hale in the game as the female Shepard.
The above, of course, is also likely why an entire culture and fanbase rose up around Femshep and the resulting coinage of that term.