There is one thing I wanted to discuss about feminism that I never had the opportunity to, which is pseudo-empowerment. Once people discover feminism, they’re quick to see it everywhere, and it’s a good start! Looking for signs of hope is much better than shaking your head like a cynical jerk, but there is a lot of sexist media that is able to hide behind one or two fronts to pass their structure off as feminist. To discuss this, I’ll be focusing on an easy target: a video game character from League of Legends named Sejuani.
Sejuani is the leader of a tribe of nomads. They travel through the frozen tundras of their world, fighting multiple armies in a desperate bid to take control of a kingdom that had cast them out. Even without being a leader of powerful barbarians, the character Sejuani already finds herself in a position of power. Riding a powerful boar into battle with a giant flail that almost dwarfs her in size, she is a very imposing figure in the game. Most characters in the game have a written lore to try and make the player feel attached to the heroes in question. Sejuani’s story constantly boasts how powerful she is, constantly using words like “hardship,” “power,” and “command.” So far, the developer have pushed a very powerful female character onto their players. Unfortunately, there is one discretion that lead to a lot of players overlooking the sexism of the character’s design.
This is Sejuani’s “splash art,” a pretty accurate depiction of what she looks like in game. There are one thing that stands out in this picture more than the boar or weaponry: she is going to freeze to death. The game League of Legends often suffers from over-sexualized champion design, and even their most “empowered” characters fall prey to this. However, most characters look at the role and lore of Sejuani and talk about how the design only emphasizes how strong the character is. Her lore even mentions this line:
Armored with absolute faith in her destiny, Sejuani pushed herself to extremes that would have killed anyone without her will to endure. She walked into blizzards without food or furs and trained while frigid winds raked her flesh.
People might argue that her design is perfectly in line with her character. Barbarians, even male ones, are always depicted as wearing a bit less armor than normal. Her decision to train and battle bare in the biting cold only shows how much more powerful she as a character, right? Unfortunately, these showcases of strength and independence are meant to subvert any accusations of patriarchy and sexism. If somebody were to argue that male characters were much more suitably dressed, Sejuani’s lore and design is meant to trick people into thinking there is a solid argument for why this woman is barely dressed in battle. The half-naked hero is not a symbol of strong feminism, but has been designed with feminism in mind so they may get away with showcasing sexism. It may be obvious to those of us looking objectively at the image and lore, but for those who have been playing the game and been bombarded with sexual imagery, Sejuani seems like a veritable Jane Austen character. It is an issue of the means justifying the ends.
As a bit of a postmortem, the designers eventually gave Sejuani a redesign. They agreed that while they were fine with the design of most of their characters, Sejuani in particular was a little egregious. Now donning actual armor, she is much closer to being a respectable female character.
This post was brought up by a mention of Pocahontas in class, and again on the blog. While analyzing Sejuani as a victim of “male gaze” is an easy task, I thought it was important that we recognize when characters are truly empowered or when their empowerment is just an excuse to more freely subject them to different types of sexism. While there isn’t much time left to talk about where you may have encountered this in modern media and literature, I would still like for you to think about it.