Last week, I appeared (in a non-can be bitter capacity) on the primarily retro-focused One More Life gaming podcast to get my LucasArts adventure nerd on. The episode is here if you wanted to find out how my Australian accent sounds in real life (be warned that the show contains a little Rihanna/Chris Brown discussion – not from me, I swear). My games were recently-released The Cave and, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, the Monkey Island series (incidentally, created by the guy who later went on to make The Cave). I’ve always loved our bumbling hero Guybrush Threepwood, and I’ve recently come to appreciate the feminism of the series as well, which continues to show up the gaming world more than 20 years after the first instalment was released.
(As a heads up, you should note that I’m mostly referring to the first three Monkey Island games (i.e. The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge and The Curse of Monkey Island) when I talk about the series’ excellent portrayal of women and LucasArts hallmark humour. Straight up, Escape from Monkey Island (number 4) is shit and not worth your time if you’ve played the first three. You’ll just get sad.)
Gov. Elaine Marley
The Monkey Island games were actually inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, so perhaps it’s appropriate that the character of Governor Elaine (allegedly) inspired the character of Governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Except, as the linked Cracked article points out, she is actually a more powerful character in the game… and better for feminism. Elaine is well-respected by pirate locals she governs, and while Guybrush is clearly astonished to find that the Governor is an attractive woman, he does not question her authority or aptitude for the job. Unlike other video game love interests, she doesn’t need rescuing (Guybrush accidentally sabotages her scheme to avoid marriage to the antagonist Ghost Pirate LeChuck) and, in fact, reluctantly comes out to save our hero in the LeChuck’s Revenge. She is also differentiated by her wide range of emotions – Elaine is never blind to Guybrush’s faults despite her attraction to him. She has realistic reactions to Guybrush’s sometimes pigheaded comments and wavers in her affections when it’s appropriate. And in what might be my favourite Elaine moment of all, I offer this exchange (which occurs at the end of the first section of the game, i.e. not too far in at all):
Guybrush: Kiss me!
Governor: (turns away) No! We mustn’t!
Governor: Not here, where everyone can see us.
Guybrush: Why, are you ashamed of me?
Governor: No, no, it’s not that at all… It’s just that many of these pirates have made advances toward me. And to avoid hurting their feelings, I’ve always told them that my father made me promise never to fall in love with a pirate. If they see us together, they’ll know I was lying.
Guybrush: Okay then, let’s go to your place.
Governor: Okay. (take some steps) But finish your trials first. I don’t want you to be… …preoccupied.
Governor: (walks away)
Guybrush: I feel this sudden urge to complete the trials… …quickly.
Elaine puts off Guybrush in order to make their eventual encounter better for her, and she has no issue bringing a man home she’s known for half an hour. That’s right. Our woman is sexually liberated (and one would imagine frisky, after turning down so many other pirates for so long)!
Other lady characters
The games also feature three prominent female supporting characters: the Sword Master, the Voodoo Lady and Kate Capsize, which is already about three more than most mainstream games. With Elaine cast as the main love interest, these three women are allowed to operate outside a sexualised space (again, unusual – note that none of the women are dressed “provocatively”) and are more than mere tokens of diversity.
The Sword Master is a good example of this. Carla is (obviously!) a woman, yet the pirates of Melee Island clearly regard her as being better than any swordfighting man in town. She is so revered that one of the three pirate tests is to beat her. While the reveal of the Sword Master’s gender is meant to surprise the player (consider that she is not called the Sword Mistress), the pirates’ respect and the shopkeeper’s harshly-rejected love for her tell us that she is no less deadly just because she is a woman. Eventually, we discover that she can be just as self-interested as any other pirate when she mutinies with the rest of the crew. This multi-facted portrayal of the Sword Master clearly proves that gender equality is alive and well in the Monkey Island universe.
Kate Capsize (apparently named for Steven Spielberg’s wife, Kate Capshaw) is another example of women receiving no special treatment in the game, but rather being portrayed as equally good, equally flawed and equally human to the male characters. Kate runs a glass-bottom boat company, of which the player must avail themselves to complete the game. Her asking price is exorbitant, but she is a competent navigator. Given Guybrush’s find, the business exchange seems fair. Additionally while Kate is pretty, she and Guybrush do not have any kind of sexualised exchange. In fact, Guybrush has her thrown in prison. But while we judge our hero for framing an innocent person (almost literally), we don’t do it because she is a poor, defenceless woman – it’s pretty clear that Kate, like all women in the game, is independent enough to look after herself and should not be treated with kid gloves.
Finally, I admit the portrayal of the Voodoo Lady (unnamed, and well, a voodoo lady) could be problematic, but she is clearly strong-willed and independent, and it is apparent that she exists for more than just assisting Guybrush on his quest. She is vague and deliberately evasive, and disappears at will (we know she has grandkids, so presumably she disappears to look after her own life). Even more, her Voodoo Shoppe is actually a business (creating her own wealth), and her constant appearance on the various islands that Guybrush finds himself on is played more as a unfortunate – from her perspective – coincidence than a deliberate attempt to help him.
Yes, of course I’m going to talk about Guybrush
That’s not to say that the men of the series are incompetent, as my friend Tommy posited on Twitter yesterday (PLUG ALERT: You should follow me on Twitter too and talk to me! I love that!). The Ghost/Zombie Pirate LeChuck is a formidable villain, and many of the minor characters are known for their expertise (consider the Scotsman one needs to defeat in Curse’s caber toss). While Guybrush does not fit the mould of a traditional pirate (he is slight and underage when we first meet him, in stark contrast to the burly, bearded men of the SCUMM Bar) the style of gameplay actively rewards his non-physical strengths rather than approving the other characters’ views that he is not pirate-y/manly enough – after all, it is Guybrush’s (and yours and GameFAQ’s) puzzle-solving skills that defeat LeChuck and win the game. The game’s approval of Guybrush is further confirmed by the fact that he wins Elaine’s love soon after meeting her. He doesn’t seduce her with feats of strength, and she in fact just gives him the item he needs to complete one of his quests, but she is instead charmed by his non-alpha personality and boyish good looks (rather than a stereotypically muscular frame). He, in turn, is not threatened by Elaine’s power and success. The game’s positive portrayal of Guybrush therefore provides an alternative model of manhood for the young people who would have been attracted to the game back in the early 90s (and who would do well to play it again now – seriously, the puzzles still hold up).
Secret and LeChuck’s Revenge (numbers 1 and 2) are available on Steam at a very reasonable price, otherwise I hear you can acquire the games for your smartphone (WE ARE LIVING IN THE FUTURE PEOPLE). I thoroughly recommend you get on either of those things.
RESULT: The first three Monkey Islands get two thumbs up for being witty, fun to play and refreshingly feminist.
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