Therazane and the other strong women of Deepholm

One of the strongest criticisms of WoW has historically been the terrible depiction of female characters. These criticisms have been justified - just look at the very gender-biased Knaak novels, to the "chainmail bikini" Sylvanas character model, to the various women whose entire existences rely entirely on the actions of male characters.

However, after questing through the new Cataclysm zones, I wonder if perhaps Blizzard has turned over a new leaf! Thisalee in Mount Hyjal is a great new character full of zest and charm, and Zaela of the Dragonmaw Clan also seems like she has great potential to be a major player in future Horde politics. Back in Silverpine, Sylvanas is amazing, but that's hardly new.

Of all the new content, however, I was most impressed with the awesome new female characters in the subterranean realm of Deepholm. Over the course of the zone's storyline, you encounter a variety of strong, independent female characters, none of which are talking about love or men or waiting to be rescued.

First and foremost is Stormcaller Mylra (female Dwarf), who is one of the most colorful and interesting (and badass!) NPCs I've seen in the game yet. Her quest where you capture the ogre and intimidate it is amazing.

You also partner up with Earthmender Norsala (female Troll) and Earthcaller Yevaa (female Draenei, who shows up again in Twilight Highlands). The leader of the Deepholm Twilight Cultists (High Priestess Lorthuna) is a female Blood Elf, who serves as the questing "boss" of the zone. And there is of course the Earth Mother herself, Therazane.

All of these characters are great examples of strong female personalities, but Therazane is the one I'm going to focus on and examine. She's awe-inspiring, commanding, and not afraid of anyone. She even tells you outright that we are simply temporary pawns. I have to admit, when you first meet her and she angrily talks about how mortals killed her precious daughter, I imagined my characters gulping nervously and hoping this behemoth never learned that they had JUST DONE THIS during the Elemental Invasion. She's one scary (Earth) Mother.

Here's a list of some standard negative female tropes that are frequently encountered in video games (including WoW) and how Therazane measures up.

Skimpy outfits / oversexualized appearance
Examples: Alexstrasza, Jaina, Eredar Twins
Definitely not. Therazane's model sure isn't the typical "supermodel catalog" body image. Instead of being slender and lithe, she's plump and matronly. Unlike her daughter Princess Theradras, who isn't so much an unconventional female body shape as she is just an abomination, Therazane's appearance shouts sustenance and fertility. She reminds me greatly of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, marriage, and the cycle of life and death, who is also known as "mother earth."

Reliance on males for story relevance
Examples: Maiev Shadowsong, Magatha Grimtotem
Nope. She doesn't rely on anyone, let alone a male figure. One could, I suppose, argue that she "relies" on her male children, but in my opinion she a) does this not because they are male, but rather simply because they are her children, and b) uses them as messengers and soldiers, but doesn't NEED them. Put it this way. She'd be fine without them, but they would be lost without her.

Defined and/or restricted by her relationship with a male
Examples: Jaina, Moira Bronzebeard, Tyrande
Uh, what relationships? We never do meet or hear about a Mr. Therazane. Nor does she have any male consort or peer in Deepholm. She's The Boss and everyone knows it. Hell, you don't even raise rep with her "kingdom" but rather directly with HER.

Scheming/fragile/emo female leader stereotype
Example: Sylvanas/Magatha Grimtotem, Jaina
Not at all. She puts Garrosh's intimidation to shame, coldly tells you outright that she despises you and your kind, and takes part in the final battle right on the frontlines. She's also not weak-willed or cowardly. During all the quests involving her, it always felt like I was just a lowly minion, that she was definitely, firmly in charge. Unlike Deathwing, who has a slew of weaknesses - arrogance, paranoia, etc. - I didn't see any such flaws in Therazane. She also doesn't hesitate to order the death of her wayward son Ozruk. She doesn't mess around!

The Bechdel Test
The Bechdel Test is a simple test to check the inclusion/legitimacy of female characters, checking if a game/book/whatever has at least two women, who have at least one conversation, about something other than a man. Personally, I greatly dislike this test as I feel it's extremely easy to manipulate, but many people value it.

Regardless of how I feel about it, Therazane passes the Bechdel Test. She speaks to very few people in-game who are not players (who don't count) - I can remember only four, but two are female, and none of the conversations were about a male. She talks to High Priestess Lorthuna when Lorthuna attacks the Earth Temple, and their conversation is most definitely NOT about a male (Therazane threatens her, and then kills her). She also speaks to Earthmender Norsala after the battle, about Therazane's assistance and the Earthen Ring's promise to leave Deepholm.

Finally, Therazane also gets the rare privilege of having a completely unique, brand-new character model! Even Alexstrasza (in her humanoid form), Wrath's "god-tier NPC" shared a model with Sylvanas, and now, Ysera. It's quite unusual for a character who isn't an Alliance/Horde leader or a big raid boss to have such a distinct, exclusive model, so this is fairly noteworthy.

Therazane is a great example of Blizzard proving they can break their decidedly-sexist previous habits and introduce strong, independent female characters. The other Deepholm women were all great, and were just as impressive and confident in their respective quests, but Therazane really takes the cake. I freaking hate her from a player perspective (STOP SENDING ME INTO THAT CAVE, I HATE THOSE STUPID STONE WORMS AND I ALWAYS GET LOST) but she immediately won me over with her presence and "zero tolerance for BS" attitude.

You're doing great with this new direction, Blizzard. Now just deliver some solid stories for Magatha, Jaina and Tyrande - who all have AMAZING hooks and potential just waiting to be utilized! - and I'll be a happy camper.

17 Responses Subscribe to comments

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    I agree, Therazane rocks!

    And I, too, was pleasantly surprised that after Wrath's perpetually weeping Jaina and awkwardly answered player questions about female outfits, they actually did go ahead and introduced some more females that kick butt in Cataclysm.

    I just wish they had given the Ramkahen females and generally not forgotten about adding some more among the random NPCs as well. (I keep noticing quests where you're meant to interact with NPCs en masse by talking, recruiting, rescuing or whatever and often there isn't a single female among them, which I find odd.)

    January 11, 2011 at 4:05 PM

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    I love Therazane more than I could possibly say.

    Lindy, my tauren warrior, has been wondering about the Stonemother, and whether she was possibly in fact the Earthmother, since she came in contact with this sort of elemental lore so long ago. Now that she's met her, she holds no confusion as to their differences: the Stonemother is nothing like the Earthmother. The Stonemother kicks significantly more ass.

    I don't actively RP usually, but my characters have a life of their own inside my ribcage, and I strongly suspect that Lindy is near to turning heretic in favor of Therazane. That's how awesome she is.

    January 11, 2011 at 8:53 PM

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    Interesting. I hadn't thought of it before, but did you notice how much alike Therazane and Venus of Willendorf are? One can guess Blizzards inspiration for the design.

    January 11, 2011 at 10:05 PM

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    @Shintar - I agree, it's unfortunate that there were no female Ramkahen - though one could perhaps suggest that like real cats, both genders look identical? ;) In seriousness though, that really is one of the more tired trends in the game. There's really no good reason NOT to have female ogres, troggs, Earthen, Ramkahen, etc. It's too bad - that would have been a really nice update.

    @Button - I think Therazane is going to have a lot of fans. She's terrific! And unlike Sylvanas, there's none of that "oh you just like looking at her ass" stigma, haha.

    @Zinn - !! That's very interesting, I think you are definitely right! Especially the part where the Venus has no feet, just like Therazane. Good catch! :D

    January 12, 2011 at 10:10 AM

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    Great examples, Rades!

    I would like to say a brief word in defense of the Bechdel Test, though. While it's true that an author could easily "game" the test, any author who did that would have to (by definition) acknowledge the very problem the so-called "test" is meant to highlight! And if they care enough to do that, they probably don't really need to game it.

    I feel the point of the test isn't to make a standard for people to come up to, but rather to give a quick indicator for the bare minimum of inclusiveness. Passing the test doesn't mean your writing is inclusive, but failing it certainly means it's not. :) Of course, it's not always bad to fail the test—if you were writing a story about space aliens or a men's club, or both, it might not be relevant at all!

    Anyway, that's secondary to your post, which is right on. :)

    January 12, 2011 at 12:31 PM

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    Hey Lara! I guess my problem with the Bechdel Test is that it's entirely one-sided in its information. Don't get me wrong, when used properly it is quite interesting (and often quite surprising). But whenever I see something like the Bechdel Test, I immediately ask myself the unanswered questions, which frequently completely invalidates the so-called "shocking" results.

    The easiest example of this would be a book with only a single character, a female. Since she never talks to another woman, this book would fail the Bechdel Test, despite its obvious female presence. This is an extreme example, but you get my point. I've seen someone use the Bechdel Test to prove a point about how a female character didn't talk to another woman. Of course, what this person didn't mention is that this female character didn't talk to ANYONE, male or female.

    January 12, 2011 at 12:56 PM

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    I know you mentioned that 'There's no real reason not to have female ogres, troggs, earthen, etc.' However, think how hard it would be to get some of those races as female, and have it actually look decent? Not to mention how much more time that would take.

    Take for instance the worgen: Blizz made the male model fairly quickly compared to the female model. The female model they tweaked over and over again throughout beta. And it still looks like a braindead chihuahua.

    On the subject of earthen: Being constructs that don't reproduce in the traditional manner, I doubt they actually have females. Or technically males, for that matter.

    January 17, 2011 at 5:56 PM

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    @anonymous-- The problem with the female race creation issue as you put it is this: what is "decent"? I honestly fail to see how it's any more difficult to create a female member of a race than it is a male, except that the designer is often preoccupied with "decent" equaling "attractive", whereas it's pretty obvious "attractive" is not a concern when it comes to creating most male models. (And those male models who DO fit the definition of "conventionally attractive", namely blood elf men, end up being mocked for it.)
    Frankly, it shouldn't have been as hard as it apparently was to get the worgen female right, and they STILL didn't even get it right; I think someone really was too obsessed with making something that was still 'pretty', instead of just going for vicious/feral like a slimmer version of the male worgen.

    As for earthen...that's another issue, to be honest. If a race has only one gender (or is totally gender-neutral), why is the default automatically "male"? And how do earthen have children? You rescue the son of the stonefather, and while it could be an adopted son-figure, it still does rankle a bit that male is automatically the default gender for almost every NPC race for which you only see one gender.

    January 18, 2011 at 8:19 AM

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    @Anon - Thanks for the comment! To clarify, when I said there's no reason not to have females of X race, I meant from a storyline perspective. There are certainly RL reasons why they don't exist. Cost, time, effort, or even sexism! Any are possible factors.

    There is also the sort of grey area of having, say, female ogres, and then having countless quests to go butcher/behead/etc. said female ogres. I'm sure the Violence against Women card would arise, despite there being plenty of quests ingame where we defeat female dwarves, humans, etc. I don't think it's a *good* reason, but it's certainly a convenient excuse...

    @Anon & @Sauce - the gender neutrality (or lack of it) with the Earthen is an interesting case. They *should* be genderless, or even if they designate each other as male or female, their appearances should probably be devoid of gender-specific features such as breasts or beards. I like how Therazane's children don't look specifically "male" even though they are her sons. They're freaking rock behemoths! And that's how they appear.

    January 18, 2011 at 9:26 AM

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    I love Therazane. She's truly terrifying.

    What drives me crazy is how, on my realm at least, I can't manage to do my Deepholm dailies without at least one person making a comment about her body. Everything from a sarcastic, "Woah, that's so hot!" to "Eeew, what the hell?!"

    I can't help but wonder if her Venus of Willendorf shape is lost on everyone and that they feel like they have to make demeaning comments because they're faced with a female figure they can't just reduce to something sexy.

    (Oh, and in response to comments, there is one race in game that has only females! Harpies! So they're mostly naked and feathery! Oh yay, progress.)

    Anyway, this post was great, thank you!

    January 19, 2011 at 10:56 AM

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    Thanks for the comment Eddy! It's true, there are many such comments directed her way, but these are the same players who adore the Night Elf bounce, Alexstrasza's ass, etc. It's sad that the mythical/cultural/historical significance of her design is lost on some people, but I guess we just have to tune them out.

    As far as female-only races, there's also the Val'kyr, though they come from a dual-gendered race (Vrykul).

    January 19, 2011 at 11:06 AM

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    Red Skies

    Very insightful post. I agree with every word of it and was likewise very surprised at the number of sprouting female heroines all over Cataclysm while questing. Zaela was definitely my favorite!

    January 22, 2011 at 8:30 PM

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    I don't believe it is quite fair to count the Eredar Twins as a negative example of skimpy outfits. Did you never notice that the male eredar cover very little skin as well? Malchezzar, Jaraxxus, even Kil'Jaeden himself bare their chests and arms, and those who we see below the waste have nothing more than an ornate sort of loincloth. I think there is a double-standard at work in your mind, but all-in-all you make some good points.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:35 AM

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    This comment has been removed by the author.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:39 AM

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    That's actually a very good point, one I hadn't considered! Gender equality in the eredar...who'd have thought it? Really nice observation. :)

    March 11, 2011 at 9:39 AM

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    Thanks for replying, and so quickly!

    I'll agree that some characters are overly sexualized, and it doesn't help when fans have to take it even further (though Blizzard cannot be blamed). In the latest Explorer's League site update, they highlighted some outstanding new fanart, including a five-man Alliance party someone drew for his/her guildmates. One of them is a female human paladin in Judgment armor, only this version does away with the collar and midriff covering portions. A nice work of art, but disappointing to see the unnecessary alteration.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:45 AM

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    I'm not sure how I got the name Joe. I forgot to hit Anonymous - I don't have an account proper.

    Anyway, I wanted to add my frustration with the lack of female models, but I've always assumed it was an unfortunate reality of money and man hours being needed to make each and every model. I would love if they implemented female ogres already - it's not like they even CAN make them traditionally sexy, and I'd like to see what they can do with it. I was disappointed to see no female tuskarr or pygmies, and even moreso that the tol'vir/Ramkahen have no females OR voices. You think with all their money, Activision-Blizzard could get the 3D artists to whip something up after all this time, but I can't say I know how it works.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:48 AM