Games

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsless Rogue: 'Dragon Age II''s Isabela

If there's one thing I never expected a game to do, it would be to teach self respect.


Dragon Age II

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Rated: M
Players: 1
Price: $59.99
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Developer: Bioware
Release date: 2011-03-08
URL

I'm admittedly cynical about the phrase "owns her sexuality." Not the concept, but rather the application of it, which I seem to find ascribed to any female character who fits the "girl who kicks ass" cliche irrespective of how she is otherwise objectified and depowered. I have listened to the arguments for why Bayonetta, for instance, is empowering and pro-feminine. Some, such as that by my blogmate G. Christopher Williams, are quite well-argued -- but I still don't agree. My view of the situation is perhaps best articulated by the likes of William Huber, who contended: "I had found it difficult to explain the inadequacy - even the wrong-headedness - of this approach, my perception that these depictions still ultimately served male vanities and played on female anxieties, and that the male game player -- his needs, desires, and qualms -- still was being overwhelmingly served in games that were supposedly being targeted to both men and women" ("The perpetuation of a misguided notion", zang.org, 12 January 2010).

As a game designed by men and targeted to men (as most games are), Bayonetta does not particularly convince me that it is either profeminine or empowering in its cartoonish portrayal of the female figure. I'm open to differing opinions on this matter, but I'm not certain that the weaponized sexuality of Bayonetta or Atlus's upcoming Catherine are the same as women "owning" their sexuality at all, not when they seem to simply play on male anxieties of emasculation and continue to serve moderately conservative, heteronormative social views.

Dragon Age II doesn't break down doors or revolutionize women characters, of course, but it still has some positive characteristics that I like. I've spoken previously about my adoration for another Dragon Age II character, Aveline Vallen and my appreciation for the Dragon Age universe's gynocentric dominant religion, Andrastianism, which features a woman Christ figure. I'm not saying that Dragon Age is a safe haven of liberalism and positive representation of diversity in an industry sorely lacking it, but . . . Well, okay, so I am, but that isn't to say that Dragon Age is absolutely free of problematic representation. Indeed, it certainly has issues aplenty. But if there's one thing I never expected a game to do, it would be to teach me self-respect.

When I first saw the promotional art for pirate captain Isabela, Jack Sparrow's long-lost twin sister, two things popped into my mind: "They've inflated her breasts" and "Why can't women ever wear pants?" Since playing the game start to finish twice, I've changed my mind considerably. Isabela is so cool that she doesn't need pants. And her breasts can be as large as Bioware likes; it doesn't mean that the way the camera cases on them while she's slamming men's faces into the bar is the only way that she's weaponized. Here, at last, is a woman character who really owns her sexuality, and I mean really.

Isabela is refreshingly frank in her sexual attitudes, not simply for reasons of titillation but to provoke humorous situations and to allow for personal expression as well. Throw two or more women characters into your active party and walk around -- she's as grotesque as she is insightful, and it's fantastic. My favorite party banter arose between Isabela and Aveline, who are as different as night and day and thus naturally butt heads. It would have been easy for Bioware to simply write this as endless, unresolved friction for comedic effect, but instead we witness an evolving rapport between the two women.

Seeing a chink in Aveline's emotional armor when it comes to her husband, Isabela at one point drives the knife home.

Isabela: "You're lucky to have a man who wants to please you. But maybe you could indulge him more. Are there areas of intimacy you haven't explored?"

Aveline: "Why? Why do you give me these doubts?"

These sexual anxieties Isabela introduces (in part of an ongoing rivalry based largely on Isabela's sexually libertine attitudes and Aveline's conservativism) appear to multiply over time, leading to two further conversations:

Aveline: "How are you so successful with men? You're not that pretty."

Isabela: "Cast a wide enough net, and you're bound to catch something."

Aveline: (laughs) "At least you're willing to admit it."

Isabela: "Trust me. I've heard 'Get away from me, you pirate hag!' more times than I would care to count."

Aveline: "Doesn't that bother you?"

Isabela: "Why should it? They don't know me. I know me."

Later,

Aveline: "You're right."

Isabela: "About?"

Aveline: "About knowing who you are. I'm the captain of the guard. I'm loyal, strong, and I don't look too bad naked."

Isabela: "Exactly. And if I called you a mannish, awkward, ball-crushing do-gooder, you'd say..."

Aveline: (lightly) "'Shut up, whore.'"

Isabela: "That's my girl."

My mouth fell open. There are many things that I've come to expect out of well written games, including female characters that I can occasionally identify with, but to my recollection none of those games prior to this one involved an open discussion of finding one's self esteem. That's the stuff of educational games and expressly feminist independent titles, or so had been my experience up to then. In a game absolutely rife with uncommonly complex messages and nuanced characterization, it still managed to blindside me.

Dragon Age II accomplishes many things that we don't frequently find in games, not the least of which being that it still somehow manages to be fantastic despite harboring the kind of objective flaws that would destroy lesser games. One thing that it does particularly well is in placing women into all kinds of roles: antagonists and allies, moral and corrupt figures, and women with multiple sides to their personalities who -- though they exist in a world that is explicitly more gender-blind than our own -- face the kind of recognizable issues that real women can relate to. Isabela isn't the kind of character that I would normally find myself identifying with at all, and yet through the game's deft writing, she's become the sort of role model that I can happily aspire to.

Check out my full review over in our Multimedia Reviews section for more about Dragon Age II.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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