I’ve spent a large portion of my summer playing Skyrim, because I only play games after everyone has collectively decided that they are worth playing. I’ve really loved how immersive the experience has been (and I even downloaded a bunch of survival mods to push it further), and I’ve got a lot of thoughts about how the game deals with language, gender, and race, especially given the moment in time it appeared on the scene (2011). So hold onto your butts for Stephanie bitching about all the things that annoyed her about Skyrim.
Gender in Skyrim is an interesting thing. Like many games of this type, the gender of your character doesn’t affect game play. Males and females have equal abilities and opportunities, and the world is populated with men who keep house and clean and women who run lumber mills and work as sellswords. On the surface, then, Skyrim seems to be gender equitable society. However, this is undercut in a few ways. For instance, once a character’s gender is chosen, it is treated as absolute – any dialogue with gendered language (“shield-brother/sister,” for instance) is determined at that moment. Additionally, any clothing that you pick up, no matter what it looks like when you pick it up, becomes gender-appropriate when you wear it; a tunic and breeches you pick up off a man will turn into a dress when a female character puts it on. In short, Skyrim doesn’t permit any genderbending or nongendered characters. And while the playable character may marry men or women regardless of gender, they seem to be the only queer character in the entire country, since all other couples you run into are cisgendered and heterosexual.
Additionally, misogyny is widespread in Skyrim, even if a female Dragonborn isn’t on the receiving end of it. Sneaking around bandit lairs gives you a chance to overhear complaints about unfaithful women lying about the fatherhood of their children, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. One of the most disturbing quests is recovering a necromancer’s journals from Yngvild Barrow. The barrow is filled with ghostly women, and reading the journals reveals that Altermeri necromancer Arondil, after being shunned by the attractive young women of Dawnstar, retreated to the barrow to continue his experiments. After reanimating a number of female corpses to obey his orders, Arondil found their company agreeable, with heavy overtones that the relationships became sexual, and when a live women was captured by his reanimated slaves, he tried a different kind of experiment to create these spectral beings that, when touch, produce “a sensation unlike any other, as if her essence were invigorating [his] very soul, connecting with [him] on a level no woman of flesh and blood could do” (Arondil’s Journal #4).
At the end of the dungeon, after defeating Arondil, the Dragonborn enters his bedroom to find one of these spectral women in his bed.
The Blood on the Ice quest in Windhelm also involves a necromancer targeting women. The quest unfolds much like a police procedural, with the Dragonborn stumbling upon a crime scene, questioning the witnesses, talking to the priestess of Arkay for the forensics report, and following the blood trail to the killer’s den. At first, the wrong man, Wunferth the jarl’s wizard, is imprisoned, either on the word of busybody Viola Giordanno or the actual killer Calixto Corrium. Then, when the Dragonborn returns later to Windhelm, another woman has been killed, and Wunferth is able to provide knowledge that gives the Dragonborn the chance to stop the real killer.
These two quests are in part so disturbing because of the façade of gender equality throughout the rest of the game, but no one has to die for Skyrim to be misogynistic. Let’s take a few moments to consider Haelga, the owner of the Bunkhouse in Riften. She’s a generally unpleasant woman, rude to the Dragonborn and, according to her niece Svanna, abusive. Svanna is equally disgusted by Haelga’s philandering ways, asking the Dragonborn to help take Haelga down a notch by finding the Marks of Dibella she has bestowed upon the three lovers she’s taken in the last month and rubbing them in her face.
That’s right, people, it’s Slut Shaming: The Quest.
So I went around finding these Marks of Dibella, just to see what would happen, and you know what one of the men, Bolli, said to me? He said that he thought she had slipped something into his drink, a very serious accusation that never gets followed up on. Moreover, because Bolli and Haelga are often seen together socially (in fact, you can overhear a conversation between them about possibly running away together), this sounds a lot like a man who regrets having a sexual encounter with a specific person (or at least getting caught) and now claims rape, which is exactly the narrative that men’s rights activists use to discount claims of rape made by women. Eventually, you collect all the Marks of Dibella, you go back to Haelga, she asks you to keep quiet because if people found out she was practicing “the Dibellan arts” she’d be run out of town, and Svanna is pleased to see her aunt eat crow.
A few things here about how this quest maybe should have played out:
1. If Haelga did in fact slip something in Bolli’s drink, that should have been treated as more serious. There should have been an option to investigate the claim and a stricter punishment than just embarrassing her.
2. If Haelga did not in fact slip something in Bolli’s drink, that claim should not have been made by Bolli or he should have been chastised or punished for the claim. The way this plays out just further reinforces a damaging narrative that people lie about being raped and therefore we should not take rape claims (especially rape claims made by men about women) seriously.
3. Or maybe a quest about shaming a woman who likes to have sex with multiple partners (including relatively kinky sex, given the kinds of items you can find in her room) should have been completely removed from the game entirely. Or maybe another option for resolution of the question could have been written in, a resolution that involved Svanna learning that it’s wrong to shame people for their desires and Haelga learning to treat the people around her better.
Of course, how a player feels about this entire quest depends a lot on how they feel about Haelga. If Haelga were more likable, players may have been more reluctant to take on this quest (depending on how they are role playing the game). However, like Svanna, the player is expected to feel satisfied, I think, by Haelga getting what’s coming to her. Additionally, the question of religious freedom is never completely explored here: Haelga claims that her sexual activities are in honor of Dibella, but that she would be ostracized if found out, but we have no one else in the game that can either confirm or deny her assessment that casual sex is part of Dibellan worship. And whether it is or isn’t, a claim of religious persecution should be taken more seriously in a game where one of the primary narratives, the Civil War, is weighted heavily with questions of religious freedom (I’ll be taking up the Civil War in another post focused on race).
When looking at these phenomena holistically, we might call this the unequal application of misogyny — other women in the game appear to experience misogyny and rape culture regularly while the playable character is exempt. I’m left with somewhat mixed feelings about this. If, for instance, misogyny were equally applied, players would be punished for choosing a female character, and that’s not a good thing. On the other hand, this kind of unequal application may allow male players of women characters to further ignore the misogyny around them because it doesn’t affect them. Think about how often men have argued that street harassment isn’t that big of a deal because they never see it happening. Action RPGs like Skyrim could have the potential to be pieces of procedural rhetoric about the regular experiences of misogyny.
Alternately, if Skyrim really were to present an equitable society in relation to gender, we could have men being turned into sex slaves by necromancers of both genders and women necromancers preying on other women.
So, other Skyrim fans, what do you think? How did you experience gender in the game?
P.S. In Part 2, I’ll be taking up the issue of race in Skyrim, as well as the Civil War storyline.