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.