Major spoiler warnings for Sith Warrior, Imperial Agent storylines, spoilers for Bounty Hunter, Jedi Knight, Jedi Consular class stories
While the Star Wars franchise gave us one of the most prominent female heroes in modern culture, it also tried very hard to ruin her and strip her off all that made her so loved and so valued by many fans. That unfortunate controversy weaves through the entire Legends continuity, and while Leia is probably the most notable example of such an attitude in Star Wars writers, other female heroes have gotten mostly the same treatment over the years. High promises and low yield is the female destiny in this universe – or, rather, was a female destiny, now that the new canon tries hard to battle it. But as much as it is a newer game, Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) is truly a part of the Legends continuity in its antiquated treatment of women.
Introduction: The Most Modern Sort of Sexism
Every social construct has its own trends that change overtime, and sexism is not an exception. Not too long ago in media, most women were to be used and abused, men were to be triumphant and masculine, and art was to depict a gal clinging to her chosen male’s leg. But nowadays this kind of blatant sexism isn’t as acceptable as it used to be. The audience demands gender equality and doesn’t shy away from telling the creators what exactly is offensive or icky in any piece of media.
So sexism changed. It often masquerades itself as empowerment, blending in with the background, posing as ‘just joking’, or pretending to be ‘just true to life’. It gives female characters prominent parts in the stories, and it even lets them take power. Only the power is ‘feminine’ with emphasis on ‘sexual’, and they are not allowed to have and execute true agency. Moreover, they are punished if they try to have it. Women are still acted upon, while men act.
But the glittering of crowns on female characters’ heads or swords in their hands catch the audience’s eyes, and makes them believe they have their desired ‘strong female characters’.
But that visual aspect, while saddening, is basically taken as a given when one decides to play a video game. It doesn’t automatically make the narrative feminist-unfriendly, but that is more often the case than not. SWTOR is a perfect case study in this aspect.
For SWTOR, I want to focus on the romance and flirting options. Yes, they are optional. In fact, you can play through the entire game as celibate hero who never ever flirts. But they are a perfect mirror of gender expectations in much of the Star Wars universe, and they are fairly unsettling, to be honest.
(As a side-note, I was personally irritated that almost all the gratuitous exotic dancers were either Twi’lek or Mirialan. Of course the fantastic racism perpetuated is just what we need, but that’s a topic for another article entirely.)
Male Approaches; Female Is Approached
Before I dive into more specific examples, I want to briefly talk about some overall trends in the romance writing. If you play a male player character (PC from here on out,) you have plenty of options to initiate flirting, while also plenty of options to avoid it. You can be nice and not flirtatious. With a female PC… not so much.
If you play a female PC, prepare to be nagged by every third male NPC in the game. They will call you ‘babe’, compliment your looks, and ask you if you know what a dangerous world is around you. If you play a male PC, it’s you who nags, but at least you can choose not to do it.
If you play a female PC and you speak to a male NPC, you can’t just be nice with him. The same options that were innocent for your male counterpart have now become flirtatious ones. When a woman says ‘You did great work’ to a man, she must be flirting! (As a side note, a male PC can fall a victim of this unfortunate stereotype when interacting with a gay NPC Cytharat. Personally, I was dragged into a romance with him just because I wanted my PC to be polite. But this ‘ninjamancing’ is much more common for female PCs. It’s telling that the only way this happens to a male PC is from a gay man, however.)
All approaches the game throws at you are extremely callous and irritating. I can hardly imagine a person who would be really romantically moved by something like “Babe, we’ve just met but you’re pretty, so go sleep with me.” Or who would complacently cope with constant “My pretty bird”s from complete strangers. And kissing a gravely wounded man (the same lord Cytharat) also didn’t seem the romance culmination I wanted. Though I found it extremely dramatically satisfying™.
These trends are present in all the PC romance options, some worse than others.
Vile Variety of Unhealthy Relationships
The game has around thirty distinct romance routes across all of its content. The vanilla version of the game has twenty romance options, not counting short flirt-flings and one-night stands. But what they have in multitude, they lack in diversity.
In general, there are three types of romances in the game: 1.) male PC with a girl much younger, 2.) female PC with a man eager to protect her with or without her permission, and 3.) male PC with a creepy, crazy, woman. Male PCs usually have a choice between type 1 and type 3. Female PCs have only one option, though iirc some of them can flirt with one more companion, but to no success. And while at least some of those options can be quite nice and enjoyable, the general pattern is a bit disturbing.
While the Type 3 may be the most offensive, it is also the one that doesn’t need thorough elaboration. Those characters exist only to jangle player’s nerves and lack any consistent personality whatsoever. They are not persons, they are tropes made alive. The others, on the other hand…
Type 1: Older Male vs Younger Female
A companion character is not necessarily a dependent character. A younger girl is not always vulnerable and can in fact be quite proactive and wield lots of agency. But in this game, Type 1 romance is always about a vulnerable younger girl who is in strictly subordinate position towards an older man who romances her. Their story is to lose a parent figure, then become an apprentice to your PC. They eventually give in to his constant advances, and then marry him despite all the problems it may cause.
Then most of them become grass widows: the game continues without them, so they are presumed to just exist somewhere while their husbands continue adventuring and romancing DLC-exclusive companion characters. Ah. And according to in-game information, they still love their absent husbands and stay true to them. How sweet!
While most consider Vette to be the worst example in this domain, I tend to disagree. First, to romance her properly the PC has to befriend her. He has to do everything to lessen the status gap between them, he has to treat her as his equal. While nowadays, due to unfortunate changes in game mechanics, one can find a way around the original quest sequence and complete her romance as a brutal slave master, it was not the intended story. Second, while she really is a slave in mercy of your Sith Warrior, she has enough agency to assert herself and enough maturity not to make your PC feel like a predator.
Unfortunately, Vette is his sex slave in all but name. Despite all the sincere efforts to counteract it with the theme of friendship and erasing the gap, she stays his slave by the law for entire game until he marries her. Yes, he can release her in the beginning, but it is only between them. It is not a legal manumission.
But it is less unsettling than, for example, relationship with Mako.
The girl is sixteen. She’s lost her father figure and your Bounty Hunter becomes her way to avenge him. She continues to suffer from losses in course of the story, and at last the Bounty Hunter PC becomes her only living friend. Then she at last gives up to his demands and agrees to marry him, despite being very much against the idea before. In the DLC content your PC abandons her, and she is totally devastated. If you don’t romance her yourself, she is romanced by her peer Torian Cadera, only to be abandoned quickly because she is not tough enough for him.
But at least the narrative sort of pities her for having it the worst. Other girls are not that lucky.
Do you want something really icky? If you are Light Side Sith Warrior, you can get your teenage apprentice, a Jedi, pregnant. Just so she has a gifted child who may become a Jedi. It is marked as ‘good’ narratively, or at least as completely okay. Needless to say, the young mother stays behind and nothing is said about about either her or your child ever again.
Type 2: Protective Male
A protective male character is not always a nagging, meddling, person who wants you shut in the kitchen. But in SWTOR, romances for a female PC tend t always be with that kind of protective male character. And he is frequently a wannabe Casanova to boot.
To initiate romance with him, your PC should react positively to his extremely sexist remarks and bear with his constant urge to mansplain something obvious to you. As he is the only option available, it is either take it or stay celibate.
The prize is certainly worth it: she gets to marry him and bear his children, and if he was a womanizer, he is magically cured from it because your PC is so very special and not like those other women. He treats them even more like shit now, but it is certainly no problem. He respects your PC, after all.
Though you may find some consolation in the fact that they are mostly left behind, too.
In my opinion, the problem comes from game developers really believing these characters to be, no sarcasm, Nice Guys. My personal experience with them is quite limited, as I hardly could make myself to play it through even for exploration purpose. I tried Doc and I tried Corso, and I interacted with Tharan, and then I never played Republic ladies again because it is ‘meh’ at best.
Doc is a wannabe Casanova type, as is Tharan. Even if you play a male Knight or Consular you have to put up with them. They are quite eloquent about their successes with ladies; in Doc’s case bragging substitutes most of his companion interaction quests. If you play as a female PC it’s even more nauseating: all of a sudden, Doc falls in love and becomes insistent that he is changed and that you’re his only one! Not like those other meat tickets whom he now treats even less humanely than before!
Corso was even more meh, because right from the start he declares that he was taught to treat ladies well. Obviously, this means treating them as a weaker things who are to be lectured about the world’s danger. If he could, he’d put your PC in the kitchen. As he cannot, he tries to nag her there. Even if she turns him down, he continues nice-guying her. In fact, he asks her to have some children so that he can be ‘an uncle’ to them.
And to initiate his romance you have to accept his drunken advances. As if he wasn’t awful enough already.
This game managed to literally objectify a female person. Tharan Cedrax, a Jedi Counsular companion, has his own companion named Holyday. She is ‘a fully sentient holographic life form’, if he is to be believed. Holyday is your perfect digital girlfriend: always cheerful, always ready to praise her master’s talents, with sweet voice and playful intonations. He openly cheats on her. She doesn’t complain. She never complains, in fact.
He also uses her as a tool, quite literally. Every healer companion has an ability to stun enemy for a while, and most companions do this through an electrodart or a Force trick. Tharan, however, has a unique ability named ‘Deploy Holyday’: she appears before the enemy and performs an erotic dance to distract the enemy.
Special Cases: Jaesa Willsaam and Malavai Quinn
A Male Sith Warrior has a whole lot of unhealthy relationship options.
He is a teacher to Jaesa Willsaam, whose alignment is dependent on his. If he is Light-sided, she stays a meek Jedi girl who gradually learns to be strong in a Jedi way, to embrace inner peace but be ready to act if needed. Her LS story would be perfect, if not for the aforementioned child-bearing culmination point. If he is Dark-sided, she is a masochistic, trigger-happy, crazy woman who delights in aggressive submission to her master and dreams of becoming a baby factory for him. And that would be a full romance. You can even marry Dark Jaesa, while you can’t marry (or romance) her Light self.
A female Warrior has Malavai Quinn. This romance is generally well-loved by female audience. I found numerous supportive posts on the game’s forum and in different communities about it. It’s hated by male audience because they find Malavai to be un-masculine and because he betrays your Warrior at a certain point.
So what is the problem? He is her subordinate whom she coerced into sexual relationship using her superior position. Right from the beginning he has no interest in her but a professional one. He constantly asks her to leave him alone. She forces him to kiss her. He eventually gives in to her advances and becomes a model husband to his assaulter.
I can’t help but explain his sudden decision to kill the Warrior as a desperate last-ditch attempt to get rid of his abuser.
Because of his betrayal subplot he has a considerate hatedom that demanded a right to kill him. So in the newest DLC he is again made a traitor so that the PC can kill him for good. Yikes.
Last But Not Least: LGBT “Representation”
We’ve come a long way since 2011 in this regard.
The original game, prior to the DLC, had only one bisexual character: Kaliyo D’jannis. One can hardly imagine a better example of the psycho lesbian trope. She is a compulsive liar, a sociopath, and trigger-happy bomb-throwing anarchist. Her bisexuality is made evident from the fact that during her exes-killing spree, one of those exes is a girl. Weirdly enough, if you try to flirt with her as a female in a Knights of the Fallen Empire DLC, she will turn you down with a slightly homophobic remark, so… it’s complicated. And very, very problematic.
In the Rise of The Hutt Cartel DLC there are two characters, a gay (Imperial) and a lesbian (Republican), who can be romanced only by a male and female PC, respectively. They’re not full romances, though. You have flirting options, which culminate in a kiss (for gay) and a one-night stand (for lesbian). After that you get a letter from your partner and that’s all. You will never remember them or hear about them ever again.
I didn’t play through the Republican route, as I couldn’t make myself to go through whole class story as a female PC for the reasons I specified earlier. But I played the Imperial version, and it was very ‘meh.’
First, there’s the problem that if you want to be polite (or sometimes just reasonable) you have to choose flirting options. Apparently, you can’t just say ‘let’s consult our tactician’ if you’re male and he’s gay. I’m not joking, it’s written as a flirting option. Second, he is as disinterested in your PC character as possible, because he is trying to repent for his master’s crimes by taking part in a suicide mission. In context, you couldn’t call the flirting options (and especially the dialogue they trigger) anything but open harassment. Finally, the romance culminates in the aforementioned kiss with a gravely wounded man, who barely escaped death. Or it doesn’t culminate at all, if you chose not to save him and he heroically sacrifices himself.
I don’t know if the Republican route provided the same ugly trope mixture. I can only hope it doesn’t, though clearly the pattern makes me think it does. Nothing about this game makes me want to find out firsthand.
As for ‘transgender’ representation, there is The Hunter, though she’s not good representation at all. She is a woman who spent her whole life as a man, but then goes back to her femininity as she falls in love with your Agent. If he’s a man, of course. If she’s a woman, the Hunter discloses their true sex just to tease her. Adding insult to injury, fem!Agent can flirt with disguised Hunter. It serves as an additional (homophobic) joke: ahaha, she flirted with a woman all the way! Male!Agent, meanwhile, can give a kiss to poor Hunter, so that she dies happy.
Does all this make the game a bad one? No. It’s still an interesting, enjoyable game that tells several good stories. It even has a few nice romance options, like Andronikos Revel. But overall picture is quite sad for women, and playing a female character can be truly frustrating.