My roommate and I were having a discussion about stereotype-defying representation in the media. I wanted to share my passion about a particular character from the Dragon Age franchise, named Aveline Vallen, and expressed my frustration that people would install a game mod to make her “prettier”. Aveline (see right) is not your stereotypically “beautiful” woman. She has a strong nose ridge, a square jawline, is decidedly muscular — so muscular that she can tear down a monster with her bare hands. Her clothes, and later her armour, don’t particularly show off her cleavage or assets (heh); in fact, as the game progresses, her suit of armour becomes heavier and less revealing. It is part of her character that she struggles with her appearance, struggles with self-doubt about not being curvy and delicate and slim. It is important character development that she grows to love and accept herself, and realise that beauty is subjective, while not rejecting her feminine qualities and acknowledging that it’s okay to feel, and to want to feel pretty.
The mod – there are a few, but the main one – makes Aveline more “feminine”. It gives her a pointed chin, a small, dainty button-nose, big eyes, and slim features and build. It makes her stereotypically pretty which is the antithesis of her personal character development (outside the scope of the game’s overall plot).
While my roommate and I normally agree that people should be able to play games in the way that is most enjoyable for them, we disagree on the notion that certain things — like beautifying Aveline — are indicative of a problem.
So when does media “preference” become a “problem”? When does it change over from “personal” to “big picture”? Does it indicate the person is prejudiced or a bad / mean / jerk of a person? When does it stop being “just” a game, a book, a story, a picture, a movie and become something worthy of attention and discourse?
I believe these preferences are dangerous because media does not exist inside a bubble, and and neither does society. These preferences help shape the media we consume. If people “prefer” media that depicts stereotypically beautiful people, then that is what we see. If most of a game’s userbase modify their game so that x character is changed in y manner, then chances are that game’s developer will change that character / future characters to deliver what their target demographic desires. If people find it “unrealistic” that black people existed in medieval Europe (even though they did, they are called Moors), then all of our Arthurian legends will be all white people, all the time. Personal preference is the crux upon which media bases what is popular and what they will produce. Personal preference when it deals with social prejudices already prevalent in our society is never just personal.
Even if an individual is not racist, sexist, or any sort of prejudiced, if their personal preference is in line with preferences from others who are, it helps shape the advertisements, games, films, novels, and television shows we are provided. When media is changed so that it is more ‘aesthetically pleasing’ to the viewer or user, those changes will reflect in what we see as “good” as a society. Already dark skinned / dark haired celebrities are becoming lighter in skin and hair colour as their popularity increases. Anyone -especially CIS women- who appears in media is changed and altered and photoshopped within an inch of their life to appeal to personal preference. These preferences fuel self-doubt, self-loathing, shaming, blaming, and prejudice.
So, sure, go ahead. Make Aveline prettier and thinner and smaller. Insist that there is no way Lancelot could be black because HISTORY (but dragons and magic swords from ladies who live in lakes are historically accurate). Stress that it is just your personal preference that all women in your video games be small, waif-like, doe-eyed creatures who couldn’t scare a cat and butter won’t melt in their mouth.
But don’t think that your preference in these matters only affects you, because as a consumer you’d be incredibly wrong. Personal preference is a problem when that preference is shared by so many people that it negatively impacts how we as a society view ourselves, each other, and the rest of the world.