imagining gender equality: the case of Skyrim

“Why yes, it is perfectly reasonable to have a boob window in sub-zero conditions!”

“Wow, this game does not discriminate based on gender,” said my friend, as we watched a graphic cut-screen of my female orc merrily decapitating a heavily-armoured female Bandit Chief.

As someone who has spent over 800 hours of my life playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, part of me wants to agree with this assessment. In some ways, it’s entirely accurate. In Skyrim, there’s a distinct absence of many of the gendered tropes that put me off mainstream videogames. In all my extensive play time, I never felt like I was willfully ignoring offensive portrayals of my gender in order to enjoy the rest of the game. In Skyrim, as in many open world RPGs*, your character is completely customisable; their gender, their appearance and their skill set all come down your own choices. Both male and female bodies are equally idealized (though even the bulkiest lady body does not look strong enough to wield a warhammer). In general, female armour is not more revealing or sexualised than equivalent male armour. (Albeit, there are some female sets that have an inexplicable chest windows, which, considering the climate of Skyrim, always makes me think “wow her tits must be cold”.)

It may seem bizarre to note such paltry concessions to the existence of female players. However, in context of a wider gaming community that is hostile to the idea that game developers should stop alienating women – let alone actively include them – mostly non-sexy armour reads as a huge victory. So too does the general design and structure of Skyrim. The female NPCs** are fully clothed for the most part, with a few notable sexy exceptions such as Aela the Huntress and the “Tavern Clothes” outfit. The randomly generated bandits who you will spend a significant chunk of the game fighting also feature lady bandits at a ratio of roughly 1:2. Three out of sevens Jarls are female and there are plenty of prominent female warriors/thieves/mages who play important roles in key quest lines, such as Delphine in Riverwood and Karliah in the Thieves Guild. You also encounter women in positions of power within the various hold communities, such as business owners and religious leaders.

Jarl Igrod Ravencrone of Morthal, and her housecarl Gorm, who’s conspiring against her because he thinks she’s crazy…

All this seems good and positive and progressive, right? And yet, despite the fact that there are ostensibly strong women everywhere in Skyrim, I’ve always had a nagging sense that this world still doesn’t really belong to them. I was never able to fully articulate where this feeling comes from, until I read this discussion thread on Tumblr. It was then I realized that the veneer of gender equality presented in Skyrim is precisely that; a veneer, a veil, a faux-progressive paint job. Consider: in the society of Skyrim, women can fulfil any role – labourer, warrior, farmer, shopkeeper, blacksmith, divine entity – without facing any gendered scrutiny or prejudice. On the surface, it seems that this is a society without patriarchy, a society where men and women stand on equal footing in all political, social and economic spheres. But if this is a society without patriarchy, why do patriarchal values consistently permeate the stories and shape the interactions of the people of this world?

Riverwood is intended to be the first town the player visits. In Riverwood, you can help resolve a love triangle in which two men are trying to win a woman’s affections by deceiving her. Men competing with each other for a woman’s hand with no actual input from the woman in question is part of patriarchy. As you move on to the city of Whiterun, you will encounter Carlotta Valentina, who is being harassed by the bard Mikael. Mikael, it transpires, is the author of A Gentleman’s Guide to Whiterun, which is essentially a pick-up artist’s guide to the women of Whiterun, rating them by attractiveness and discussing risks and considerations for getting them into bed. Mikael views women as objects to be evaluated and acquired – how did he develop such a misogynistic perspective in a purportedly egalitarian society?

Olfina Gray-Mane, another Whiterun resident, will confidently tell the player that “there’s nothing a man can do that I can’t do better.” On the surface this could be viewed as a feminist statement, but why is she so defensive about her gender if she has grown up in a society where women can be anything they want to be? In a gender egalitarian society, there is no need for feminism and no need for women to forcefully assert their competence in contrast to that of men.

In Winterhold, we encounter a classic Jack the Ripper storyline: young women are being butchered in the streets at night and it is up to you to catch the murderer. It turns out the culprit is an aspirant necromancer trying to resurrect his dead sister, but the story never really explains why he only targets young women. Perhaps because the writers felt like they didn’t have to explain. In a patriarchal society, it’s a given that dangerous men will prey on women because women are, by default, more vulnerable than men.

And finally, when you delve into a dungeon overrun with bandits, you will often hear this charming piece of ambient dialogue: “… lyin’ little harlot… that brat ain’t mine… could be anyone’s… won’t get one rusty septim from me…” The concept of the mercenary slut who falsely claims child support to wring money out of an honest man is so inherently misogynistic that I don’t even know where to begin, and yet here it is, embedded in the framework of a supposedly gender-neutral society.

Olfina Gray-Mane of Whiterun: “It’s not easy being a woman in Skyrim, I know. But stay strong and men will come to respect you, and maybe even fear you.”

I’m giving examples from Skyrim because of my in-depth knowledge of this world, but this post isn’t actually a criticism of Skyrim in particular. It’s more that Skyrim suffers from a fundamental world-building problem that plagues many works of fantasy and science fiction, whether they be books, comics, videogames or TV series. As one of the most popular videogames of all time, it’s often held up as an example of excellence in world-building. In many ways, this accolade is warranted. Building on four previous Elder Scrolls games, its lore is complex and its history is detailed. The sheer depth and breadth of the world means that, in 800 hours of playtime, I have yet to complete every single quest, uncover every single secret. Skyrim is a colossal imaginative undertaking, but when it comes to gender equality, it falls at the first hurdle: it fails to imagine a world where the power relations between men and women are fundamentally different to what we know and accept in the real world.

We also see this failure of imagination with regard to Skyrim’s marriage mechanics. In Skyrim, you can marry any one of a set of available NPCs, regardless of their gender. This implies that Skyrim is a society that thinks homosexuality is perfectly normal. And yet, out of all the characters you will encounter on your journeys, there is not one visible NPC gay or lesbian couple. If you choose to marry your character to an NPC of the same gender, your relationship will exist in a vacuum. You can choose to be gay, but the world around you will remain staunchly heteronormative.

Gender equality isn’t something you can just slap onto your fictional world like a coat of paint. The reality of daily lives is that we all swim and breathe in the soup of patriarchy, and in that context it’s a huge feat to coherently imagine what real equality might look like, even for female creators. This is why, even while attempting to be progressive, writers end up leaning on comfortable patriarchal narratives to flesh out their worlds. To create a world with true gender equality, you have to rip up the foundations of your own assumptions and question everything you considered normal or default, including the most basic definitions of “man” and “woman”. Perhaps such a feat is not and should not be in the wheelhouse of a popular game developer, especially when it’s so much easier to make one out of every three guards a woman and call it a day. It’s also easy to argue that high fantasy is necessarily restricted by our received notions of faux-Medieval societies – complete with whores and tavern wenches and damsels in distress – and that challenging creators to deconstruct those tropes would mean deconstructing the genre itself.

But I’m someone who believes in both the potential of videogames as a medium and high fantasy as a genre. I believe the intersection of this genre and this medium is a perfect arena to deconstruct and challenge the status quo. A fantasy world without patriarchy would look and feel nothing like the world know. That’s exciting. To build it would require creators willing to stretch their imaginations far beyond the bounds of comfort and familiarity. That’s challenging. Forget dragons and wizards and ancient artefacts of indescribable power; a world built on gender equality from the bottom up? Now that would be something truly fantastic.

*Roleplaying games

**Non-player characters

9 thoughts on “imagining gender equality: the case of Skyrim

  1. In regard to the faendal and sven triangle with camelia you can actually pickpocket both letters from them and show her the letters making her see them both for the imbeciles they are, she goes about her merry independent way


  2. Great post! I came across this completely by happenstance while looking for a non-gendered armor mod for Skyrim, haha. Like you, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what bothered me about Skyrim. Your post (and the Tumblr thread you linked) really materialized one of my problems with the game world. Perhaps Skyrim is more realistic than people think, in that its creators have inadvertently “ported” (lol) the various systems of oppression that they’ve internalized from the real world into the game.

    As someone who uses lots of mods though, it sucks that much of the modding community consists of the same kind of people– people who play games/use mods solely to scratch an itch or fulfill a desire– desires that are usually shaped by someone’s real-world hangups. Like, if you treat any medium like that, any criticism that asks you to confront your assumptions, preferences, or habits about said medium will obviously make you angry or confused.


  3. I have to respond to this one…

    Let me first say, I am a woman, so this is not coming from a man raising the banner for patriarchy.

    I came across this article because I was searching for anyone who had a mod that was actually a REALISTIC depiction of women in a medieval setting. I’m not a feminist, I’m not a “men must be neutered to make me feel equal”, I am someone who believes in equality for all (not just women while men get the shaft). That’s another topic for debate, honestly…

    Here is the thing, I think in their attempt to be “gender neutral”, developers don’t create a realistic depiction of women. Anyone who knows our history, knows women have not always had rights. I do know the Vikings, to spite their time, were more forward thinking when it came to women, but I’d rather see a game world that, for once, was actually REALISTIC.

    What is realistic? If we were suddenly thrust into the dark ages where social “norms” were not accepted by men, women would not be equal. Let me reiterate, I believe in equality for ALL (not just women) but realistically, equality is a joke if the quote “stronger sex” doesn’t agree. That is why history is rifled with the tales of women violated, used, married without their consent, etc. etc. etc. Do you really think, in a time of war, in a medieval society, women would have equality? Perhaps to some degree, but that would go out the door the first time your village was raided and a bunch of men carted you off for God knows what. Feminist ideology in such a world would get you killed as a woman. Most women in those times had more sense. Yes, I believe we are stronger than men in different ways, but physical strength is not one of them. Yes, there are some exceptionally fit women who could beat some men, but a fit woman vs. a fit man…you’re going to get a beat down. The only equalizer, in Skyrim, would be magic (just as guns are the equalizer in today’s world and it cracks me up with progressive women want them banned). In a world like Skyrim, if you don’t have magic going for you as a woman, you’d learn your place real quick. I’m not saying it’s “right”, I’m saying it’s “real”.

    I don’t say ANY of that to belittle my fellow women. We are strong, but give me a break. This is a game world based primarily on feats of physical strength (i.e. fighting), a time where women probably wouldn’t have had equality and certainly wouldn’t have been on the battlefield. Stop trying to nitpick a depiction of medieval life into a gender neutrality discussion. The very idea is ridiculous. I’d like to see a game designer actually have the balls to make a realistic depiction of women in medieval times in an RPG where all things are not equal (i.e. women can’t go above a strength of 15 but their agility cap his higher, etc.) and actually make it what it would be, a patriarchy. No, I am not some chick with a thing for being dominated (ask my husband, I don’t take any gruff), I’m very independent, but such an environment would be REAL and might make women, like the OP, be a bit more grateful for how far we’ve come.
    I’d play the heck out of a game like that just for the challenge of proving myself as a woman in a male dominated medieval world. I bet you’d be surprised how many ladies WOULD play it.

    Sorry for the long post.


  4. Oh dear…

    Ok, first,to your points: I’m not even going on why the Butcher is targeting young women to rebuild her – ahem – SISTER, but ok you got me, Mikael, Sven – and faendal, if you talk to him first – are sexist morons. And you can kill the however you like. In the case of Mikael you can either convince him he’s wrong.

    In all instances of men clearly wrongdoing women you can do something about it, either by killing, persuading, bribing or punching the offender. In Windhelm there’s even a guy that becomes your firend after you introduce him to your fists for harassing a female dunmer.

    Do you know what you can’t do?

    KILL ELEWEN, the second most important villain in the game.

    Or you know, KILL DELPHINE, who DEMANDS you to do an unspeakable crime even though you are in theory her master.

    Or KILL MAVEN, the criminal mastermind pulling the strings on Riften.

    Or do anything, ANYTHING, to get Sollitude an other Jarl than Elisif, which is, ahem, the QUEEN of the land you play the game on.

    And you can say she is lackluster and Tullius is managing things, but SURPRISE, it’s implied in several instances that Stentor, the female court wizard feared by the WHOLE court is the one in charge.

    Don’t like her as a ruler? ok, replace her. NOPE, she is the ONLY Jarl to never be replaced even after her side is defeated. Even if you cheat her out of her essential status with the console she instantly becomes essential again, to the point that a mod about the player becoming High King had to do some hard delving into the code to get her death to be possible.

    But ok, she is essential because she is a Jarl, although she gets special treatment in the lore and on the game’s engine, and Maven and Delphine may be essential for quest purposes, but what about Elewen?

    She is, after all, not essential after Season Unending (in wich 40% of the people deciding Skyrim’s fate are women and even the racist Stormcloack leader shows respect for both Elisif and Delphine but not to Esbern).

    She just stays in her Embassy, behind a wall you can’t open without cheating.

    I mean, the point you make about imagining a society without gender inequality is fair, but Bethesda goes to great lengths to show you that your actions have an impact on the world, but the only main villain of the game to go unpunished for her crimes is female and you are still not impressed.

    Sometimes I wonder, do you guys understand that steps have to be made in order to have real change? This medieval fantasy already strays light years alway from the social and gneder issues of real life medieval times, and yet you are never satisfied.


  5. Huh, so I’ve been rebuilding and resurrecting people all wrong this whole time? I should be mixing up the body parts instead of trying to keep consistent so the person looks normal? Ya of course he’s not killing men, he needs female body parts to rebuild his SISTER, notice he also doesn’t kill any of the elves or argonians in Windhelm because he needs the body parts of nords.
    Also marriage in skyrim means jack shit without a bunch of mods. Whether you marry gay or straight it never has any effect on the game except for a free place to live + a nice income of gold from your spouse.
    “The concept of the mercenary slut who falsely claims child support to wring money out of an honest man” you mean that thing that happens frequently in real life?


  6. A good article, however if i may be a nerd here and criticize one of your points. the man in Windhelm murdering the women, is basically trying to rebuild his sister and considering all the men in Windhelm are big hairy nords it would probably end up looking weird if he used their parts. Sorry but just thought that point was strange.


  7. The above comment is rude as hell, so I want to let you know the truth.

    This is a good article. I love Skyrim, and I love feminism. I also love looking at games and picking them apart to find a deeper meaning. Open-world games like Skyrim or Oblivion or any of the Fallouts are so fun to examine and pick apart. Thank you for writing this. It’s an interesting perspective and I love seeing other people critically analyzing things like this.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. OK, this is easily the cringiest article about Skyrim I’ve ever read. As soon as I read the word “patriarchy”, i said “fuck it”. By the way, I’m not a huge fan of overly skimpy armors either, simply for immersion purposes, but this article just makes me want to download a whole lot more skimpy female armor mods for Skyrim just to spite your bitch ass.


I want to yell at you

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s