Escaping the fridge
A quick break from srs metaphysical bsns to talk about ladies and kitchen appliances.
When is a woman in a refrigerator not in a refrigerator?
Dragon Age: Origins offers the player several ways of beginning the game, several “origins”. Each one provides your character with a home, a history, and a reason for joining the elite fighting force of the Grey Wardens, thus setting up the rest of the game’s story. This about one of them. Trigger warning for rape and violence; spoiler warning for the City Elf origin.
I have to say, when I first played through the City Elf origin story, I wasn’t wildly impressed. The lowdown: after a series of unfortunate events, the cousin of the PC, a young female elf named Shianni, is raped and beaten, and you, the protagonist, arrive too late to prevent it. This leads into a revenge opportunity against the men responsible and other assorted chaos that culminates in the PC being recruited into the Grey Wardens to avoid the long arm of the law.
While I didn’t think the (offscreen) rape was handled tastelessly or implausibly, I considered the whole situation rather a cheap narrative device. Specifically, I suspected they were falling into the “Women in Refrigerators” trope. For the uninitiated, this is a narrative device common to all media, but especially prevalent in comics (from where the name originates) and video games. It can be identified when a supporting character is killed, raped or otherwise traumatized horribly for the sole purpose of providing the main character with an ‘I WILL AVENGE YOOOU’ emotional motivation and related Dramatic Angst.
It’s not the presence of death/rape/trauma that is problematic, so much as the fact that the victim of this trauma seems to exist solely as a vehicle for said trauma rather than as an actual character. Once the desired Angst has been shovelled onto the – usually male – main character, the – usually female – victim, having served their purpose, is often forgotten about entirely. Surviving victims, in the unlikely event that the plot still bothers to involve them, will generally show no memory or ill-effects of their experience. The trope is cheap, frequently sexist and an insult to people with experience of actual trauma. Hence my lack of enthusiasm when I seemed to recognise it. Oh lovely, I thought, this Shianni character’s getting ’fridged in an attempt to provoke an emotional reaction in the player. Whatever. I left the starter area, got into the game proper, and didn’t think much more about it.
Then later, much later, I met Shianni* again. This was after my PC had been adventuring it up across the land, exploring new places, meeting new people and killing them. Shianni congratulated him on his accomplishments, in tones laced with sarcasm. Then she turned it around on him, accusing him of having forgotten, in his glorious crusade, where he had come from, and why it all started: “You don’t even feel much anymore when you remember it, do you?” she said, bitterly. “You’ve moved on, past the horror of that night. I envy you. You’ve gone on to other things, things I can only dream of.”**
I felt it like a punch in the stomach. It helped that the voice acting was a masterpiece of subtle emotion, but more than that – it was all true. She had been a plot device, her pain mere emotional leverage to set my protagonist on his journey. I had barely given her a second thought since the game proper began, focusing on my “important” quests, my “real” party members. But in that moment, she refused to let me do that. Screw you, hero boy, she seemed to be saying to my PC, you were the lucky one. I was raped, and you got to use it to your own advantage and then forget about it. I have never had the luxury of forgetting about it. Every day that you were triumphing over evil and hunting for treasure, I had to remember it, and live with it, and carry on anyway.
Shianni subverts the “women in refrigerators” trope not just because she survives, but because she, and her trauma, do not suddenly stop mattering once their narrative usefulness is spent. She carries on – we later find her pouring her considerable energies into activism and the defense of her people – but her experiences remain part of her. She insists on being a character, not just a plot device, and she doesn’t let the player get away with treating her like one.
When is a woman in a refrigerator not in a refrigerator? When she kicks open the door and breaks it over your head.
*OK, so technically, it’s a spirit, and it’s unclear if it’s actually representing Shianni, or (more probably) a manifestation of the protagonist’s unconscious mind. For the purposes of Shianni’s character development and role from the player’s point of view, however, it doesn’t actually matter which she is!
**It’s worth noting that Shianni doesn’t have this conversation with all City Elf PCs, as I later discovered, just the ones who deserve it. A friend roleplayed a city elf plagued by guilt about what happened, and met with a Shianni who, while still haunted by the memory of what happened, gently tried to assuage the PC’s self-blame. File this under “BioWare are Impressively Sneaky”.