Thursday, May 1, 2014

Maiev: The Danger of Female Power

After my post on Tyrande I chatted over Twitter a little with Keezy Young, who writes for, and Emmett Scout, who writes for Next. recently named Tyrande as a female role-model for young people. I would certainly agree that Tyrande deserves that title. As I state in my post she is great example of leadership. She’s strong, she makes tough decisions, and she listens to others even if she disagrees with them. We briefly discussed why Maiev or Sylvanas might not make that list.

Unacceptable awesomeness
We agreed that the fact that one of Maiev’s main themes is vengeance edges her out of the running for role-model of the year. The discussion got me thinking though. Despite how well she is written for the most part, Maiev still falls into an archetypical trope of a dangerous female in power. If Tyrande shows the lines within which female power is acceptable, by contrast, Maiev is an example of female power gone outside the lines that the writers felt were acceptable.

Maiev joins other female characters, from the classic Medea to Shakespeare’s Regan and Goneril to the modern Jean Grey, as a woman who is portrayed as so empowered she is driven mad. In other words, too much power for the implied weak female vessel. It’s a backhanded sexism that suggests female empowerment only to point to it as problematic if pushed too far. It is the same mentality that suggests that a woman may serve in congress but not as president (still hasn’t happened in the US), or can serve in the armed forces but not in combat (only officially fully allowed in 2013.)

Now, I do not think that Blizzard wrote Maiev with this in mind, and Maiev at least does not go absolutely crazy cuckoo bananas and end up the villain. Still, it’s disappointing to have this otherwise amazing, heroic, and honor bound female character thrown into question by the other protagonists for simply doing her job.

First, some quick review or background. Maiev is Illidan’s jailer. Remember Illidan and how Tyrande killed a few night elves to liberate him after 10,000 years? Maiev and her fellow Watchers were down there with him for 10,000 years. There’s no indication that they ever got vacations outside of the prison compound either. Maiev and her fellow jailers just stayed down there guarding Illidan for 10,000 years until Tyrande passed by, killed a few of them, and then liberated the prisoner. Tyrande suddenly doesn’t seem so great when you think about that.

Maiev, the prison’s warden, somehow evaded Tyrande’s forces. I can’t recall why if we’re ever told. Maybe it was during one of her rare chances to rest. Maybe Maiev stayed back tactically in the shadows, or maybe she was just too dumbstruck as Tyrande rolled in, killed a few people who had been dutifully on guard for the past few millennia, and then released the prisoner… that they had been dutifully guarding for the past few millennia.

Someone new - not Tyrande or Malfurion, his brother.
Apparently nobody saw fit to keep track of Illidan after he was released and metamorphosed into a demon-night-elf hybrid either. Whoops. This is where Maiev comes in. She is on the chase to track the mutated Illidan down and bring him back to prison. Despite the setbacks, Maiev takes her job very seriously. What’s more, she’s dressed for the job too. She wears full armor with a cape hemmed with knives. It’s almost as if being sexy wasn’t of concern to her at all!

Too cool to feel required to show you her bellybutton.
She is essentially awesomeness incarnate, and she’s not specially blessed or chosen either. You get the feeling that Maiev go to that point of awesomeness through hard work and practice.

Maiev chases Illidan all over the place. She is referred to as relentless and is presented as being kind of hound-like as she chases her quarry. There’s a sense during the campaign that she has taken the hunt dangerously too far – past the point that is healthy. Honestly, however, what else was she supposed to do? Her job, the entire past 10,000 years of her existence, has been focused on keeping this dangerous person imprisoned. If Illidan’s outside of the box, Maiev’s sole purpose is to get him back in.

Hey wait... yeah!
The writing is initially geared towards having the player sympathize with Maiev. Things start to feel a little odd when we see Maiev threaten Tyrande for having freed Illidan in the first place. 

So patronizing.
Despite Maiev making a perfectly valid complaints about Tyrande murdering her forces and freeing their prisoner, the argument is mediated my Malfurion. Malfurion is presented as a kind of male voice of reason and balance, and this is where things start to go poorly for Maiev’s narrative and Malfurion’s as well. Malfurion tries to keep Maiev and Tyrande from attacking each other’s throats. With the way he hand waves the issues away, however, Malfurion seems to take neither Maiev’s complaint against Tyrande nor Tyrande’s assertion that she is accountable to nobody but the moon goddess as very serious subjects. These are both important statements in the game’s world, but Malfurion seems to dismiss them as the ladies just being catty.

Not strictly true, but you should know that whenever anyone assures you that they saw something "with their own eyes" before you even doubt them... they're probably lying.
The player is fully turned away from sympathizing with Maiev when she tells Malfurion a lie. Maiev states that she saw Tyrande torn apart by the Scourge when she actually just saw Tyrande get swept down a river towards Scourge forces after a bridge collapsed from under Tyrande. The player is meant to see the revelation of this lie through the eyes of Malfurion. 

Deceptive, but solid thinking.
There is definitely something very male-gaze-y about the results. Maiev explains that she lied because she knew that Malfurion would abandon the mission to apprehend Illidan to save Tyrande - which is probably true. Malfurion appears to only have obsessive eyes for Tyrande and her well being during this campaign. Malfurion still labels Maiev a “betrayer,” comparable to Illidan, for lying to him.

Jerk even calls her "woman."
Illidan has willfully murdered dozens at this point and was interrupted attempting to destroy the world only moments earlier. Nevertheless, the player is now expected to join Malfurion in equating Illidan’s crime with telling the lie that Tyrande is dead rather than most probably dead. Tyrande has also now become a damsel in distress or precious object of purity to be protected regardless of whether or not it endangers the whole world.

I even caught him mid-sneer
After Illidan and Malfurion join forces, Malfurion once again just lets his brother go – despite Tyrande earlier having stated that freeing him was a mistake and Maiev sentencing him to death. Malfurion apparently just gets to make these kinds of decisions suddenly. As Maiev does her job and chases Illidan off into Outland, Malfurion just shakes his head and says “She has become vengeance itself, bound forever to the hunt. I only pray that in her zeal, she doesn’t cause even more havoc than Illidan.”

Cool power but unsettling subtext 
Maiev is now presented as a crazed zealot. How is seeking to bring to justice a demonic-hybrid mass murdering criminal like Illidan “causing havoc?” Maiev apparently is just too powerful and aggressive to contain it all in her fragile female body. She is out of her place as determined by the male tyranny now embodied by Malfurion. Her ultimate ability, the spirit of vengeance, is literally a shadowy version of herself that is larger than her. It is a representation of power that cannot be contained within the female vessel.

I hated this ending when I played through the campaign years ago. I felt that I was being pushed to accept something I saw as ridiculous. Tyrande and Malfurion, whom I had come to like in the previous campaign, were suddenly aristocratic tyrants. Tyrande apparently styled herself after Henry VIII and believed herself only answerable to the divine. Malfurion now determines right and wrong for himself and changes decisions of justice based on his brother helping Malfurion save his girlfriend.

After such a great start, Maiev had been ejected as crazy and in hysterics.

"No sir, I promise you look totally cool with those feathers on your arms... not like a ridiculous buffoon at all."
When I later rolled a night elf warrior on World of Warcraft, I didn’t let this go either. I always role-played her as a Watcher who was highly skeptical of Tyrande and Malfurion. She was a good soldier, but pointed out the ruling couple's flaws constantly while extolling the virtues of Maiev Shadowsong. Unfortunately there’s no raid to depose those two in favor of Maiev, but maybe some glorious day they’ll let players take the steps to hold those two accountable.  

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