Thursday, 13 June 2013

'As a mother ...'

A phrase that is likely to raise hackles almost anywhere, 'as a mother...' is often spoken by people who feel that their ability to procreate makes their opinion more valued or 'right' than that of other people. But it has another use that, to me, is even more infuriating: the characterisation of women as a mother.

It has niggled away at me for quite some time and is up there with 'women and children' as an oft used phrase that sets off my feminist ire. I have encountered two examples in the past week that highlighted the phrase and irritated me beyond belief.

The first was in a discussion about sexism and female characters in the Game of Thrones (GoT) books. This is a huge topic and one which can become quite heated. I don't want to delve into the full depths of that debate but to focus on one small aspect. Personally I enjoy the female characters in GoT; I like how they develop; I like how they overcome the oppressive conditions of their world; I like how hey interact with the many flawed and struggling men in the world. What I do not like is G.R.R. Martin's tendency to characterise women 'as a mother'. Certainly the world setting he has created is a common fantasy realm of young mothers and wives intended to produce an heir, but it goes beyond that. The phrase itself , 'as a woman', is used repeatedly throughout the series. The fact that they are a mother, have children, don't have children or will one day have children comes up again and again with those women of childbearing age. They are driven and confined by how they at as a mother. 
Cersei Lannister and Catelyn Stark, two of the leading ladies of the series repeatedly have their actions and decisions defined by their children and their role as a mother. This is sometimes done to great effect, as a tool for developing Cersei's narcissistic tendencies for example, but can also be confusing and jarring when the only reason given for irrational behaviour is 'because she's a mother'. Catelyn Stark, I am looking at you and your rash behaviour here.

The second example was during an online debate about female characters in computer games. Following a suggestion that it would be reasonable for male dominated FPS type games or those games featuring a faux military to include female soldiers in their ranks, in a reflection of many armed forces both official and unsanctioned, came the response:

'But I'd like to see a female soldier who isn't just a masculine woman - like a soldier who is a mother, for example.'
 Is that the only way we can characterise a female character in a game? The ranks of male soldiers aren't characterised in FPSs beyond males; soldier; quite tough; enthusiastic about grenades. Why is it not possible to see that female soldiers could be included in a similar way and be no more or less realistic than the amassed males?
Is it really the case that the only way we can characterise a woman is in regards to her offspring? Holding with the game characters for a moment, giving a female soldier an 'as a mother' back story is certainly an option, but how many male soldiers/ adventurers/ assassins/ criminals are characterised with 'as a father'. Really I want to know. How many? I honestly don't know. Perhaps it's shockingly common, but certainly in any of the FPS type game is have played or observed, he parental status of the male soldiers rarely arises. 
Can we not look at a female soldier and develop her character by saying 'she is fiercely patriotic, grew up in a military family, studied foreign policy at university and then trained as an officer in the Army.'. That would be a slightly more evolved character and it doesn't touch on her reproductive abilities.  
I don't even beleive that all characters in computer games should be well rounded individuals with well thought out backgrounds and motivations. Some games just don't need that. What I would like to see, is a number of brashly determined and gungho female fighters tumbling out of the APC alongside their equally one dimensional male counterparts.
I am aware that having a child can change a person, whatever their gender. There role in society does shift as do their priorities and focus. Whether male, female, gender neutral or gender queer, it is undeniable that having a child is likely to have a large impact on the persons life and how they are presented. However, in the majority of cases, the personalities memories and opinions are not entirely erased and replaced with a 'mother' template. This doesn't happen to men, and i doesn't happen to women either. If women who are stay at home mother's to two toddlers can easily be described with a myriad of traits and facts, from music preferences to political opinions, then it would follow that a woman who serves in the army in he midst of a campaign or a woman who is he head of dynasty embroiled in a civil war might,, just might, be a little more than a mother.
Authors, games designers and people in general have a responsibility to view people as whole individuals. We know (though there are many who fail to act) that we should not hang racial stereotypes around people's necks like a garishly covered billboard; it is about time we stopped slapping one word descriptors on to people based solely on their gender.

This post is merely an attempt to join up some of the irritated ideas that have been floating around my conciousness for the past week or so. It is not the most coherant of arguments nor is it well researched. I know that.

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