Heroes and Heroines

“I can’t fap* to her that way. :)”

Yep. This is a real quote from a real stranger watching my Twitch stream** of Overwatch the other day. They were referring to my character, Zarya, usually bubble gum-haired and in a shiny blue jump suit.


Classic Zarya


I am in the closed beta for this particular game, so it’s a popular one for viewers since not everyone can play themselves. In the game, you can get rewards for leveling in the form of Loot Boxes that give random prizes ranging from new catch phrases or victory poses for your characters, mostly useless “sprays” (little bits of graffiti your character can leave on walls in game), or new outfits or “skins,” which are the biggest deal and most coveted prizes. The skins range from common to legendary, and by a bit of excellent luck, I happened to open one of the legendary skins for one of my favorite characters. I am now able to play what is titled “Industrial Zarya.”


Zarya in her Industrial skin


Zarya is a badass (as are all the characters in Overwatch, to be fair). She’s a tank whose role is to absorb as many attacks and deadly abilities from her foes as possible to allow her more delicate but damaging teammates to survive the fray and take down the other team. She is somewhat the opposite of D.Va, another tank in the game who is equally badass but much more “cutsey” in appearance.


D.Va: she’s small, she’s cute, and she will totally kill you.


While D.Va is lithe and dainty, Zarya is sturdy and muscular. To some, of course, this is very sexy. Still, it caught me off guard when my viewer made this comment implying that her “fapability” was something to be considered when discussing the character’s value. He didn’t like that I dressed my character in the Industrial skin because he didn’t find her as hot. (Her gameplay and function doesn’t change at all; only her looks are affected.)

I mostly brushed the comment off. I can take a joke, even when it’s a joke I don’t necessarily agree with the premise of, and a Twitch chat is not necessarily the place most conducive to reasoned and rational discussion (not to mention that a discussion is simply difficult to have while trying to stay alive and support/communicate with your teammates).

Then he said he wished you could toggle the characters’ genders. This, to me, was a very interesting idea. I thought of my other favorite character lately, Hanzo, a Japanese sniper and mercenary, and how neat it would be to play a female version of him. I was starting to imagine a male Widomaker in a similarly skin-tight spandex suit, and a female McCree with cool, Old West-style garb. I loved the concept.


Left to right: Hanzo, Widowmaker, and McCree. Just imagine them genderbent!


I’ve posted before about what a great job I think Overwatch has done of being inclusive, and I stand by that. I also know that a fully toggleable (I just made that word up) gender swap of the characters is a thing that will never happen, mostly because of the reworking of the entire code and game it would involve, but also because it’s entirely unnecessary. It’s ok for some characters to be men and others to be women. I get that.

My viewer continued, though, and this is where he lost me: “Yeah, it’s just weird for me to play as a female character since I’m a dude. It feels weird. I don’t like it.”

Ok. What? I couldn’t help it. I just had to laugh!

How do you think I feel, I asked him, being a female gamer who has found herself at the end of a console controller (or keyboard, as of late) since it was cool to have Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt on the same NES cartridge?

How many times, I asked him to guess, did he think I’ve played a male character in a game?

And in game upon game upon game?

How many times have I had less of an opportunity to feel “at one” with my character, to completely identify with my character, to recognize myself in my character, I queried, than my male gamer counterparts?

And it’s not just in games. It’s in all sorts of media, perhaps especially in media of the more nerdy variety. There’s an excellent post by a fantasy author I always come back to when discussions like these come up. It’s about how he and his daughter were excited to play a Justice League-based board game together, but the little girl was left disappointed when not a single one of the female heroines were included. There’s another excellent post by a comic book enthusiast who found himself and his seven-year-old daughter in a comic book store with nothing to buy because his daughter didn’t even think they were the “real” comics. “This isn’t the real Wonder Woman, Dad. […] her boobies are hanging out. Where are the real comics?”

And if those don’t seem current or mainstream enough for you, how about just recently when Disney released some shiny new Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise just in time to profit off the excited fervor the franchise’s most recent move has incited … and completely left out Rey, one of the movie’s main characters, despite her huge role in the story line and prominent presence on screen?

Be it games or science fiction or comics or myriad other genres, young girls and women are often only included for sex appeal or as a complete afterthought or, too often, simply left out entirely. We have spent our lives rooting for and playing as characters we often couldn’t relate to. Time and time again we have cheered on characters who did not necessarily represent us or make us feel empowered or assured that someone like me – yes, a woman like me – could save the day.

So you can probably understand why I couldn’t help but laugh at the plight of my poor viewer. A male gamer having to occasionally play a female character? Someone having to focus on and think about a hero who is in many ways totally unlike themselves? Can you imagine the horror!?

Oh wait, yeah, actually I can.



*In case you’re unfamiliar (lucky you), “fap” is internet lingo for masturbation.

**Twitch is a site where you can watch people stream video games for free online. Come watch me sometime, if you’re into that sort of thing: http://www.twitch.tv/kfoxsey

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