The Body of the Barbarian

by G. Christopher Williams

27 June 2012

She's thick in the middle, has legs like tree trunks, and arms that look ripe to produce a gasp-inducing bear hug. This isn't a body that you often see in this medium.

Big breasts, waspish waist, long legs.  Yes, this is the all too familiar idealized and hyper-sexualized body of women in video games.

Enter Diablo III‘s female barbarian.  She’s thick in the middle, has legs like tree trunks, and arms that look ripe to produce a gasp-inducing bear hug.  This isn’t a body that you often see in this medium.
Diablo III does tend to “racialize” its class system with the brainy female wizard appearing as a slight Asian woman, the even more unfortunate choice to portray the male and female witch doctors as a black man and black woman in a knuckle-dragging ape-like stance, and, of course, the barbarians who appear to come from Nordic stock.

I’ve actually known a Norweigan woman for years who has almost an identical build to the female barbarian of Diablo III, as does that woman’s sister.  Heck, my wife is of Scandinavian descent and has a larger skeletal frame than the typical notion of what the petite All-American girl is “supposed” to possess.

While a kind of stereotyping of an ethnic group’s physical characteristics, the appearance of the female barbarian’s body in a video game is kind of refreshing.  This is a real body, more real than what you see more often, those Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets that are typically featured in video games.  It is also a body that seems capable of hewing a demon’s head off with a battle axe, rather than that of some slender 90-lb. “chick in chainmail,” which, again, you tend to see in most fantasy-inspired video games.

Video games are, of course, not a medium especially prone to realistic imagery.  Hyper-stylized images of the male are exceptionally common as well (G. Christopher Williams, ”Mountains of Men: The Mythology of the Male Body in Video Games”, PopMatters, 17 August 2010).  However, male bodies, grotesquely portrayed as they can be as well, at least feature a bit of variety, some effort to represent differing aspects of masculinity rather than as a singular symbol expressing only sexuality.  There is the wiry athlete, the muscle bound oaf, the feeble genius.  For women in games, the variety ranges from sexy school girl to naughty librarian, a narrow range, indeed.

Thus, while Diablo III certainly makes some unusual (and, again, some questionable) choices in diversifying its cast, it is at least somewhat heartening to see a woman of a different body type featured as a hero, someone more like Gwendoline Christie (who plays Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones, a character who in the more realistic medium of cinematic photography needs to be believable as a warrior woman).  Lara Croft demonstrates an incredible amount of upper body strength by dangling from and pulling herself up all of those cliffs and ledges.  Somehow, I’m not quite convinced that her physique would look as it does if she had developed those muscles as much as she seems to have.  So, a believable body is kind of a nice thing.

However, I still don’t expect to be seeing a new Lara Croft in this mold anytime soon.

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