Fandom’s Companion Double-Standard: Dragon Age’s “Captain” Isabela, and Lady Vivienne de Fer.
I’ve never particularly liked either of the aforementioned Dragon Age companions. But Isabela I especially don’t like — to the point of disdain and disgust — in part because she gets an unfair pass on her bullshit that she really shouldn’t. That she pulls such bullshit is terrible. That she’s ALLOWED TO, and then coddled and protected and loved is . . . so far beyond terrible, and ridiculously galling, that I struggle to even write calmly of my viewpoint and feelings on the matter.
Isabela’s a thief and scoundrel — like so many male fictional characters and actual male people. She does awful shit, such as try to get Hawke to help a friend of hers ship poison as cargo. IN BULK. If/When Hawke tells him to go jump off a sort pier, Isabela . . . disapproves. Rivalry goes up by at least +5.
She is ANGRY that a person she’s principled enough to somewhat trust has decided to NOT be partly responsible for the terminal use of that cargo.
It was pointed out to me very recently that Isabela doesn’t think that far ahead. That, yes, she’s selfish and ethically gray, but because she doesn’t do WORSE THINGS (like willingly transporting HUMAN cargo . . . which is seriously not EVEN high enough to be considered baseline human decency. That’s not-a-total-monster, at best and no one should get kudos for simply not being a complete monster. If your baseline for goodness is “doesn’t-deal-in-enslaved-persons” . . . your standards are scarily low and PLEASE re-evaluate your EVERYTHING. And do it far away from me) then she’s alright.
She’s the epitome of problematic, and not just her hypocritical and situational ethics — and I say “hypocritical,” because she’s in hock throughout the beginning of the game. Partly for not doing something she thought was wrong and into which she was duped (transporting human cargo). Yet she gets upset at Hawke for the same rational: She neglected to inform Hawke the cargo was poison — or her friend didn’t — knowing that someone like Hawke would probably not help. RIGHTLY SO. Then when Hawke nopes-the-fuck-out because IT WAS SOMETHING HAWKE CONSIDERED WRONG, she gets huff and all rivalry-y.
Hypocritical. And I hope I don’t have to explain how situational her “ethics” are, either.
But she’s pretty, if you’re into anodyne sorts of comeliness. She’s got long, straight hair, huge tits, long legs, and all of it on display, along with her “sexy,” in-your-face-sexuality. She’s dark-ish — but not TOO dark . . . not actually Black — and has typical European features, despite that.
Even nearly starting a war, and getting hundreds killed by her DIRECT AND SHAMELESS ACTIONS.
She has innocent blood on her hands, knows it, and continues to entrench herself in her wrongdoings and selfishness, even knowing she could stop it. And that yeah, it may cost her life, but if not hers, then possibly hundreds of thousands or millions to WAR. To the desperate, awful conditions that war fosters.
ISABELA IS PROBLEMATIC, not matter how default-pretty and white-adjacent she is. And those two factors may give her leeway with some, but not with me. I don’t find either impressive at all, and especially in the face of her disgusting apathy and cynicism, and her disregard for the lives of so many others EVEN IN THE FACE OF HER ACTION PUTTING THEM IN DIRECT DANGER.
Ain’t enough default-pretty and white-adjacent in this world OR in TheDAS, I would think. But it could be I’m wrong? Well, LIKELY WRONG, considering . . . ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY EVER?
On to Vivienne. I won’t lie and say she’s my favorite character. What she IS, is someone I can respect as a person, a mage, and a leader. She has an ethos larger than herself, even if I don’t always tow that line. She rose from nothing, clawed her way to the top with poise, grace, and graciousness. She’s smart and principled — even if I don’t agree with all her principles — and works toward a goal other than her own profit, comfort, and ambition.
She’s someone that can be trusted to act in accordance with her ethical system — and that ethical system is never hidden. One always knows where Vivienne stands on most matters, as she’s not afraid to speak her mind, however circuitously she does so. She stands for something more than personal gain. She’s charming without being a borderline psychopath about it, has pledged herself to people and ideals to which SHE HAS REMAINED FAITHFUL in ways that count. She ACTS in the face of evil, and for a greater good.
Ah, but, she’s also NOT scantily clad for male gamers’ consumption. She’s NOT conforming to the European or common Thedosian standard of beauty: she’s not just an iffy/waffling dark-skint. Sis is BLACK. Her features are BLACK. Her hair and its style are natural to BLACK PEOPLE. And I suppose that’s impossible to ignore or forgive.
Also impossible to ignore: Vivienne’s not falling into any man’s arms for validation or rescuing — not Hawke’s, or the Inquisitor’s — though she IS in love and loyal to a Duke and has been for nearly two decades. She DOESN’T take any of Blackwall’s bullshit and insecurities, which he foists on her as ridicule and disapproval for her attitude, lifestyle, and complete disinterest in his opinions and point-of-view (which, SMART HER, in the face of the Rainier-Situation). He treats her the way THIS WORLD treats accomplished women of color, but especially Black ones. I’m certain that were Blackwall on our Earth, he’d have called her “uppity.” For daring to act “above her station,” or some crap. As if “her station” hadn’t been earned with work and her own name, unless his co-opting of an identity and an ethos to save is wasted, pathetic life. Blackwall comes at her and comes at her and she always claps-back with poise and intelligence. With logic and insight. And he’s left flustered and angry because he knows he’s wrong in his interpretation of her character, personality, and actions. Wrong and unwilling to do the necessary work to be RIGHT and see her correctly, and with less of his own biases.
(“Blackwall,” like so many haters, I’m sure, is nothing to the Iron Lady. Nor should he be. He’s not even a worthwhile enough hater to be a MOTIVATOR. He’s . . . nothing to her. Not even in a mean way — he doesn’t mean enough to her for her to be for-real-mean. He’s simply not on her radar unless he makes a point of getting in her face. She politely, firmly smacks him down then goes back to not remembering he exists.)
If this were the Hobbit films, Vivienne would be . . . Thranduil. And Isabela would be Lickspittle.
(Come for me on this, if you like, but I recommend bringing a strong counterargument as a shield.
beetle ain’t here to back-down off personal life-experience and the experiences of millions of people who look like me and are #WhileBlack like me. I’m not here to let anyone off ANY hooks on which they’ve hoisted themselves, and nearly four decades on this Earth has taught me not to expect any for myself, either. So, if you choose to die on THIS HILL, don’t get mad when I shove the knife a little deeper, and twist.)
And like Steve Rogers of Marvel, Finn of Star Wars, and so many others who may not always get it right . . . Vivienne, at least, is TRYING. She’s reaching and striving for good when it’d be so much easier to use her power and skill to just get hers. She’s trying to make the world at least somewhat better than it had been. Maybe intention doesn’t forgive all or justify it, but it certainly does, when compared with the cynicism and selfishness of some characters. I can identify with making mistakes pursuant to doing the right or good thing. I’m not always charging up that noble path, but I walk it enough that I recognize and empathize. And I’m almost NEVER on whatever path the Isabelas of the world are on — and certainly not to such a dangerously high scale. Not because I’m so great and wonderful and evolved, but because I don’t need the responsibility of others’ suffering on my conscience. MY CONSCIENCE: that thing that I and many others just happen to have and which we mostly DON’T IGNORE. Not only that, I don’t LIKE knowing that people are suffering, let alone that I’m the cause of that and either being negligent or monstrous in the face of stopping it. That shit HURTS LIKE FIRE.
That it doesn’t seem to do more than make Isabela frown for a few seconds, then go about her skeevy business is . . . telling.
Bioware is AWARE that Isabela functions like many psychopaths in terms of her prioritizing her safety and comfort and wellbeing over the safety, right to not be slaughtered, and right not to be converted of millions. Bioware designed her that way because there ARE, in fact, people like this in any society. My issue isn’t with Bioware for choosing to represent that truth, per se. Not on this issue and not yet.
My issue is with those who somehow see her as charming and earthy, if misguided, but see Vivienne as unpleasant, scheming, and selfish. Snobbish.
I put forth that Isabela’s charm is exactly that: CHARM. A face worn to connive and cozen. It’s an act which, along with her prettiness lets her get away with literal murder.
On the heels of that, I put for that Vivienne’s front is just as much that. Does the appearance of pious sincerity make one likely to survive in an ORLESIAN Circle of Magi? Sure, about as likely as they are to allow a woman to survive on a ship full of pirates. Even the baddest-ass pirate and duelist can’t be ready to duel and fight 24/7. Eventually . . . ya gotta sleep, eat, and shit, so you’re gonna have some vulnerable moments. Moments in which your rep will do more to keep you breathing, than your blade or attitude.
If this reasoning can be used for Isabela’s life-situation, it can DEFINITELY be extended to Vivienne’s: as a circle mage and eventually a ranking member of Celene’s court.
Both these women wear masks as part of their survival and thriving. But in a larger sense, to me, Isabela’s just another tired, glaring example of what I call the Kylo Ren-Effect: All right because she’s (all-most) white. She’s a darkie-who’s-not-really — just a very tan Tevinter or Antivan, practically. When, canonically, she’s from the same place from which Vivienne’s family hails — Rivain — but ISABELA is white enough for mass approval and consumption. Safe and potentially tame-able for generic gamer grokking.
All hail Diversity in Fandom.
She’s also a grown woman who lies and steals and hides the repercussions of that, then makes excuses and begs for help when she’s only in a mess of her own making. BUT she’s busty, scantily clad, and conforms to European standards of beauty but for her slightly darker — “EXOTIC”!!!! — skin, and winds up appealing to an often-male Hawke for rescuing.
Basically, Isabela is a lot of white gamer guys’ fantasy (smart-ish/cornered rat-clever, but not TOO, and independent, but not TOO) and a lot of gamer gals’ ideal (sexually free and unashamed, able to indulge in all the worst sloughs of Patriarchy needing to shoulder responsibility or blame, or have a conscience about it). Looks-wise, she’s . . . what passes for diverse if your eyes are closed or you’re from parts of the Midwest or the Bible Belt, I suppose. You know . . . those places and people that never get any representation or see anyone who looks/is like them anywhere in fiction, fandom, and the world.
Vivienne de Fer, however, is something far more intriguing and worth my attention. She’s a Black woman character of might and talent and ideals — regal and unyielding about her ethics, standards, and loyalties. She’s someone I admire as a person, and not just as a character in TheDAS, but in THIS WORLD. I’ve known Viviennes and seen their struggles and the way they hold their heads high and keep on keeping on despite heaped-on scorn and devalidation and dismissal. That she’s so disliked and despised and ignored, in the face of her strength and grace is tiresome and old. It’s nothing new. I’ve seen it, lived it, and if I had daughters, they’d be slated to live it, too. And their daughters’ daughters’ daughters’. As representation — of women in general, women of color more specifically, and BLACK WOMEN on-the-nose — goes, Vivienne is FAR MORE LAUDABLE AND LIKEABLE than so many others . . . it angers me and depresses me.
Even in TheDAS, the struggle and double-standard is REAL. No matter where I turn, this truth holds: You can be a thieving, pirating scumbag (but a pretty and ribald one) in this world and any other . . . but you can’t be Black, it seems. No one is interested in your backstory and what you need to do to survive and thrive — to effect change for the better in a shit-tastic world — if you aren’t default-pretty and white-adjacent. And also, not too intelligent, intimidating, and self-sufficient. Though, I’m certain that, in the end, default-pretty and white-adjacent trumps all, when it comes to women characters in fandom. It always does, as far as I can tell, with a few exceptions (I’m digging what I’ve read about Dishonored: Death of the Ousider, even though I’ve tried to play the first game in the series and found it confusing and difficult to the point of not being enjoyable, even on the “casual” setting).
Like Isabela, if you must and want to. Like her if you can’t resist or don’t find that her drawbacks far outweigh her . . . finer points (does she have those? Examples, please? Seriously, I’m scratching my head bloody). Like her, love her, admire her, MARRY her, if that’s where you’re at.
You do you (I can’t, nor is it my job to stop you), but don’t kid yourself or ignore WHAT/WHO she is and represents. And what she represents, among other things, is a double-standard inherent in her perceived whiteness/white-adjacent-ness that people of color, women of color, and BLACK WOMEN see and live through EVERYDAY AND EVERYWHERE in this world. And apparently all the others. ALL WORLDS, fandom would have us resign ourselves to, are worlds in which Black women are neither liked, loved, admired, or even given the benefit of the doubt. There are NO WORLDS in which Black women are allowed to simply be and have whatever their reasons are . . . let alone MATTER in those worlds.
This is NOT the case. It never has been, despite all the propaganda to the contrary. Despite the Isabelas created to make dark-ish and Black women more palatable to the White Gaze. You can keep your au lait Barbie Doll. Many Black women in gaming and fandom ain’t trying to fuck with that bullshit. And don’t be surprised when people of color — and hopefully some of these theoretical “WOKE-ish” white people I hear tell of — call-out the more reprehensible of her character-flaws and personality nadirs. I seriously find Isabela’s “ethics” and application, thereof, GROSS, to the point that when I tried to overlook Isabela’s . . . Isabela-ness and write a fic about her, I just couldn’t. She was going to be Hawke’s girlfriend and Zevran’s best friend, but I felt both of these faves deserved far, far better than HER, no matter that damned double-standard.
If Isabela was ten shades darker and possessed of the features which people thus complexioned are USUALLY blessed with, didn’t have all that typical, Barbie-doll hair, and dressed more practically . . . all the DA fans would be saying: “Isabela, WHO????”
So, to THE CANON ITERATION of Isabela — this darkish-skint-but-NOT-Black, default-pretty, white-adjacent, borderline-psychopath, TheDAS-style Becky — and any of her apologists, what-about-ists, and those folks who “just like what [they] like, jeez, it’s just a GAME,” I say: “’Bye, Felicia.”
Oh, and DO feel free to keep Lady Vivienne de Fer’s good name outchadamn mouth whilst you take ya ass on home.