She glares angrily into the camera, threatens to shatter comic book panels, makes your controller quake with her fury. She condemns the sins, real or perceived, of the beloved protagonist, and you, you, for liking them. For colluding with them through your sympathy and fandom. She is The Bitch; it’s not that everyone loves to hate her, they simply hate.
The Bitch performs a narrative function in just about every kind of modern story. She’s the cruel interloper who flatteringly reflects the hero in their foil. She provides tension and conflict, a challenge to be overcome by the protagonist, and she is so very often a she; a projection of our anxieties about women’s power, about women who don’t comply. In most stories, everything flows in one direction from the wake of the protagonist’s quest. The Bitch is the eddy, the loose end that dares to remind the reader that there are other agendas in this world, that not everything bows to the Chosen One’s mission.
Queen Anora MacTir, a significant NPC in Dragon Age: Origins, is a prime example of someone maligned as a “Bitch” whose motivations could stand to be better understood by players and fans. At a crucial moment near the game’s climax, she betrays you to the tyrant you seek to overthrow—who happens to be her father. This, after rescuing her from imprisonment at the hands of one of his lieutenants.
How did some fans of the game respond?
“Die Anora!”; “Suck my ass, Anora”; fanart of her being punched; “You’re a bad queen and you nearly left me to die. But you know…I can think of a few ways for you to make it up to me,” in reply to erotic fanart; the “Anora is a Bitch!” stamp on DeviantArt, colourfully described by its creator thusly: “I hate Anora! She is a lying bitch!” A flood of comments agree: “You fucking bitch! Chantry cunt!”
I should point out that Anora has a small but robust fan base, of course, some of whom are quite hortatory in their praise of the politicking queen. But the hatred remains overpowering, especially in light of the fandom given to the anti-heroics of Teyrn Loghain, Queen Anora’s father, who truly was a tyrant. Anora betrays your character as part of a larger chess game she’s playing to unseat her murderous father, and ultimately provides you with the support you need to win over the nobility in that effort. She just wants her title of Queen to be more than ceremonial. But why is this ambition, in a game that bleeds with it from all sides, held as so unseemly in Anora?
Once her filial sympathy for her murderous father fades, she bides her time and chooses her moment with care. That moment just happens to be the one where she crosses the player’s path. In truth, she is a parallel player-character with goals of her own, the hero of a separate but intersecting story. While you slay darkspawn in the wilds of Ferelden, she plays a cloak and dagger game, but you both have the same ultimate goal: saving the country from the egos of lesser men and the fires of greater archdemons. In addition, Anora is set apart by her self-confidence. She is unabashed in her claim to the throne; she believes herself the most competent ruler-in-waiting. It’s hard to argue when the only competition is a father who makes deals with slavers and a young man who literally whines about being offered the throne; Anora knows she’s competent and doesn’t apologise for what she regards as an unassailable fact. She is not a reluctant leader, she simply leads.
It all amounts to a smouldering lack of compliance that burns into a flame of resistance. She suddenly yanks away the player’s power fantasy and reminds them of opposing agendas that can’t be solved by a boss fight.
More than anything else, Anora is a consummate politician, and the game bears out her confidence. If she rules as queen, the epilogue makes clear that her rulership is just, prudent, and skilled. A woman who knows she is competent and who acts, at times ruthlessly, to achieve the position she deserves. She’s so well-written she doesn’t act like an NPC but the protagonist of her own story—which, really, is how we all see ourselves. To do so while female, however, is to court the title of “Bitch.”
Reacting to The Bitch is something we are all, men, women, and otherwise, well-trained to do. She is a narrative symbol we can all interpret: she’s there to make the protagonist (or the player character) look good and help us identify with them. But there can be so much more to her heated moments. Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked + The Divine provides us with a beautiful object lesson in this regard by subverting the Bitch trope so fully that it outright inverts its logic.
WicDiv’s premise is simple. Every ninety years, twelve gods are incarnated in the bodies of humans; with a full suite of powers at their fingertips, they are loved, loathed, and dead in two years.
The first story arc gives us Lucifer herself, a sleek, swoony, chain smoking bad girl who cuts a figure like Marlene Dietrich with a bad attitude and an ironically white tuxedo. With witty quips, an easy manner, and seductively radiant power, she’s hard not to like; if you’re a woman, she’s who you secretly want to be. Within a few pages, Lucifer is sitting in on an interview with her fellow goddess Amaterasu. The journalist, the gothy Cassandra, who took her Ph.D in the study of these mysterious divine recurrences, is an inveterate skeptic immune to the literal sirensong of the divines and their ability to ensorcel the masses. She is absolutely withering in her tough questioning of Amaterasu.
“Do you know what I see?” she says, coldly appraising eyebrow cocked, “Kids posturing with a Wikipedia summary’s understanding of myth. I see a wannabe who’s never got past the Bowie in her parents’ embarrassingly retro record collection,” she says, regarding Lucifer, before turning her gaze to Amaterasu, “I see a provincial girl who doesn’t understand how cosplaying a Shinto god is problematic at best and offensive at worst.”
She shatters Lucifer’s cool facade. Cassandra is the skeptic who’s too blinkered to see what we readers, resplendent in dramatic irony, know: the gods are real. It would’ve been all too easy for Gillen to leave it at that, have Lucifer make her witty comeback and strut her stuff by blowing off a few heads. Instead, Cassandra gets more interesting. She plays the part of The Bitch, yes, but we are not allowed to just dismiss her and move on. Like the gods, she recurs; her skepticism is a leitmotif that you learn to respect. After all, assume we did not have a 72pt font blurb on the back of a comic book to tell us the secrets of the universe: would you be entirely credulous about twelve pop stars claiming literal godhood?
Cassandra is a tether to reason, and in her own snarkiness she comes to be a black mirror for Lucifer, trading barb for barb. You are forced to confront that she has the same makeup as the “cool” character, but without the benefit of divinity or the Luci’s diabolical allure. She just has her mind and her camera. If Cassandra is a “bitch,” then so is Luci (and Cassandra certainly isn’t shy about saying so). Where Gillen takes the character—who also happens to be a trans woman—is utterly fascinating and, at the risk of spoilers, all I can say is that Cassandra becomes more central to the story than her intro suggests.
There is always a role for “The Bitch,” the difficult woman, the one who insists on her own story. What makes her special, particularly in the world of videogaming, is the way she deflates power fantasies. Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic 2, another “bitch” if YouTube comments are to be believed, pulls the strings of your character from the start, orchestrating a galaxy’s worth of drama. Some players complained she could not be thwarted and that your agency as the player was limited by her grand designs. That was rather the point, however. The Bitch is the avatar of a universe’s realism, the one who puts brakes on your Hero’s Journey and reminds you that there is a world beyond your personal power. She is the Resistor in a fictional world’s circuit board.
If this sounds dreadful, it shouldn’t. There are lots of ways to have fun, and that elusive concept of “immersion” often requires more than a sense of unlimited power in order to meaningfully engage you. The Bitch is so named by angry fans because she doesn’t truckle to the player-protagonist’s mission; she is at crosspurposes with you, pursuing her own goals. When a similar character is completely on your side, she can become a fan favourite, an extension of your will and your fantasy. But if, like any real woman might, she pursues her own goals, well, out comes the B word and the fan hate that makes one fret for how these people see real women who push back.
“The Bitch” is a label applied to those women who fans resent for pushing back against them, who wield power in a way that cuts against the protagonist’s narrative grain.
By being “difficult” such characters make the story more real. She is the tribune for the implied masses of her given fantasy world, the ordinary people rendered with light sketches, thin description, or default character models. She expresses the will of someone who won’t be your sidequest, won’t satisfy your need to identify with the “cool” character, won’t bow to the protagonist’s plans; she resists. You push a button or turn a page, and she pushes back. For women in particular there is something special about this, a power fantasy of our very own, even. Such women say what we wish we could say, particularly to the men who regard us as little more than one-note NPCs that dispense their moment’s desire at the push of a button.
Watching the way Cassandra reads people, how she glides from a witty know-it-all disquisition on mythology to a sharp “fuck you” is, I imagine, how some men must feel playing Marcus Feenix.
“You are so fucking doomed,” she says smirkingly to Laura, WicDiv’s Luci-loving protagonist. How many times have I wanted to smile in the face of someone after laying those words like landmines? The Bitch does it effortlessly in her state of grace as both prophet and nemesis, a world of resistance in one woman. As are we all, at the end of the day.
Katherine Cross is a widely published gaming critic and a PhD student in Sociology who studies virtual worlds.