The Antinomies of Gender and Sexuality in Skyrim

I still enjoy playing vanilla Skyrim. Actually, I’ve never even played the DLC, and have only used Steam intermittently so that I’ve missed any chances of getting it on the cheap (I can’t seem to find it at all any more, and I think you can only buy the Legendary Edition, which already includes the DLC but which I haven’t bought). So if you can still tolerate me, allow me to share some thoughts on gender and sexuality in Skyrim, based on my having played only this side of the game, and also not having played any other games in the Elder Scrolls series. This also means that readers more knowledgeable in Elder Scrolls lore will be able to correct me where correction is due.

Skyrim as High Fantasy

What requirements does the world of Skyrim have to meet for it to be considered genuine? Firstly, in terms of genre, Skyrim is a fantasy game, specifically high fantasy (compare). That is, it is not our world (real life–RL) with some minor modifications (that would be low fantasy) but takes place in quite a different world, though it is related in many respects. On the one hand, the world of Skyrim takes much from RL, with much of its animals, forests, mountains, rivers, climates, foods, weaponry, towns and villages, social structures, calendar, etc. closely resembling that of medieval Europe, and pre-Christian Norway (compare). On the other hand, Skyrim also departs from RL in many ways, though much of this is taken from RL religion and mythology: so draugr, dragons, Sovengarde, the Aedra and the Daedra, magic, shouts, alchemy, Dwemer technology, the different humanoid races, the land of Skyrim as a part of Tamriel and that as a part of Nirn–an entirely different planet to that of Earth.

Where Skyrim does depart from RL it is in its being a world where the creatures and gods of myth are real, and can be experienced as such by the player. The world the player inhabits is an enchanted one at almost every turn. But there are also other differences between Skyrim and RL that are not satisfactorily accounted for by its high fantasy genre. Indeed, they have more to do with accepted (to some extent) conventions in fantasy gaming and the medium of gaming itself. In this post I want to argue that the fantasy world of Skyrim sacrifices internal consistency for the sake of player experience.

The Medium of Gaming and the Departure from RL

There are a number of ways in which Skyrim asks for the player’s suspension of disbelief, for the sake of gameplay. A number of these have been illustrated by “Skyrim logic” memes:

Skyrim-Torch-Meme

Skyrim-Cheese-Meme
Food can be used to heal the player, and can be digested while the game is paused
Skyrim-Bandit-MEme
Hostile NPCs rarely retreat, even when they have just seen the player defeat a dragon

Other features, there to enhance the player’s gameplay, might include the absurdly huge carrying capacity available to the player or the battle mechanics. As one commenter on Quora puts it:

I haven’t seen a medieval-based video game which would be practically accurate. Realistic fighting is not about long, exhausting battles where you gradually bring down your opponent’s health. It’s about killing or seriously hurting your opponent with one successful hit within the first 3 seconds of the duel and watching him bleed out or take the opportunity to make sure he doesn’t survive.

And don’t get me started on the food. Skyrim includes tomatoes and potatoes, both of which in RL only came to Europe from the Americas in the sixteenth century. Tolkien himself was guilty of this crime. Basically, these features in particular are either included to enhance gameplay, such as the battle interface, or have not been thought through, the food possibly being an example of this. They have little, if anything, to do with the high fantasy genre and much more to do with its medium–here gaming.

The unrealistic features that are not accounted for by the high fantasy genre but the medium of gaming most of the time inhabit relatively neutral territory, though it should be noted that many players have sought a more–keyword–“immersive” experience, that (often) is, a more realistic experience that bypasses these suspensions of disbelief. Various mods have helped them achieve this. But we step into not-so neutral territory when we begin to address gender and sexuality in Skyrim. This is because the representations of gender and sexuality in Skyrim, for better or worse, correspond to or depart from the structures of gender and sexuality in RL. (Contrast Skyrim’s treatment of race, which, while I’m sure there is still much room for improvement, is a lot less superficial than its approach to gender and sexuality: see Nord discrimination of different Elvish races, Argonians, and the Khajitt; the plight of the Forsworn/Reachmen; the mild exclusivism of the Orsimer; Dwemer enslavement of Snow Elves; etc.).

Boob Armour and Modesty Conventions

To take one example that has received much attention, consider the infamous “boob armour.” Early on in the game, the player might encounter Uthgerd the Unbroken:

Uthgerd_the_Unbroken
Image from The Elder Scrolls Wiki

There are many treatments of the relationship between boob armour and RL history available on the internet (here Skyrim specific, sometimes heated). But I have found the following video particularly helpful:

Quick sum: 1. We aren’t aware of any historical precedents for boob armour (at least that which might be used in combat–see comments here). 2. If boob armour were actually employed in combat historically, rather than protecting the wearer it would instead make them more vulnerable to injury and death.

This might mean, then, if we interpret this as sympathetically as we can, that the women of Skyrim have an entirely different body-type to those in RL, so that boob armour actually does do its job and somehow affords them the same armour-rating as men who wear that armour. But this sympathetic interpretation is highly speculative and does not rest on evidence that the world itself provides. The simplest explanation is that Skyrim’s designers were either following convention or–whether consciously or not–attending to their own tastes and those of their hetero male playership.

In relation to this, Skyrim modesty conventions dictate that male humanoids can be topless but females must at least have their nipples covered. One exception is the goddess of beauty and love, Dibella, who is bare-breasted in a some depictions, with even the vulva–or place where the vulva might be–being semi-visible:

Dibella_(statue)
Image taken from The Elder Scrolls Wiki. See also here and here, as well the related but more “modest” depiction of Nocturnal.

Apart from this, female humanoids universally wear what looks like a cloth bra (I’m unaware of any exceptions):

rrcleaner2
Taken from here. In most cases, NPCs do not run around in their underwear. In this case, the player had maxed out their Pickpocket skill which allows a perk for pickpocketting equipped items, including clothing. Underwear is not an item in Skyrim and can never be “removed” without a mod.

Interestingly, male NPCs also have different bottom-half undies:

eyesopen
Taken from the same place.

Finally, before offering critical comment, note that there is virtually no variation in body size in Skyrim. All humanoids appear to be sleek and muscular, apart from children.

Skyrim’s modesty conventions, then, seem strangely in line with North American mainstream consumer culture, though not so strange if you consider the playership. The sexualisation of breasts requires both that they be accentuated in boob armour and that they be covered up. Cf. here the cognitive dissonance of Facebook’s policy on nipples. This is further exacerbated by the universal, exclusively ideal body-type that Skyrim offers, suggesting that upholding North American attractiveness conventions is more important than variety or realism (also this video if you haven’t seen it yet). Just how contemporary the beauty conventions of Skyrim actually are, moreover, can be seen in the fact surprising lack of variation for female headdresses (also here), apart from say circlets, which are worn by males too anyway. Even the depictions of Dibella, though following in the tradition of artistic depictions of the female form, are potentially problematic when considered in this context (see also).

Marriage and Sexual Orientation

Another odd interplay between realism or internal coherence, on the one hand, and player sensibilities on the other, can be seen in player marriage in Skyrim. Here Skyrim gives the impression that its world was formed to reflect an intentionally idealised version of RL. Thus, where the non-heterosexual, non-male player might still run into obstacles on the basis of their sexuality and gender in RL, virtually none of these are to be found in Skyrim. For example, players playing as male characters can marry other male NPCs and female characters female NPCs (no NPC will object on the basis of gender). If we are thinking about this in terms of the world itself and not just a fancy open to the player, then every marriable NPC is thus already bisexual, or, their sexual orientation is determined to match the player’s gender from the outset of the game. This is further complicated by a perk available in the Speech skill which affords “10% better prices with the opposite sex” when buying or selling wares. Every merchant is then already hetero- or bisexual. This may all be relatively acceptable, but the problem finally becomes clear when the player realises that there are no other, non-hetero, romantic relationships in the world of Skyrim, besides that available to the player and one in the DLC (lengthy video treatment that I have not watched, here).

The only other non-hetero relationship in Skyrim is not even a part of the original game and clearly an afterthought. Does this not mean that the world of Skyrim is basically heteronormative? If so, oddly, no hostility is shown the player for their apparently unconventional choice of marital partner. This all leads very quickly to the conclusion that Skyrim includes the option to provide a more inclusive or expansive (or both) player experience, without really having thought through the implications this might have for the internal consistency of its world. Obviously there would be considerable problems with creating a world that emulates the discrimination its non-hetero players would face in RL. Of course, literature, film, and other art forms from the LGBT community have already done this. To do so in gaming, then, is no more problematic, though, that being said, the unique nature of the medium needs to be taken into account. Nor can I offer any suggestions of what this might look like, being myself a cis hetero male. It should be noted, nonetheless, that here Skyrim seems to be tending towards inclusivity rather than allying itself with existing stations of power, as in its use of boob armour. There is a catch, though. Rather than make a unique contribution to the conversation or challenge its more socially conservative playership, such as in an alternative world with a much more liberal and diverse approach to gender, sexual orientation, and sexuality, Skyrim only includes a hushed, token acknowledgement of non-hetero orientations by offering the player the opportunity to marry someone of the same gender, an act that is an absolute anomaly in the context of its wider world.

Gender Roles

Societies in Skyrim appear to be largely egalitarian. You have male and female royalty, jarls, and warriors, and, as far as I can tell, women almost always not being excluded from any role or type of work on the basis of their gender. There are a few exceptions, though. All hold guards are male, for example, apart from Stormcloak guards. Orsimer society is structured around a stronghold supporting a single tribe and run by a male chieftain, the latter being the only member of the tribe permitted to marry (see for example). Finally, the Forsworn Briarhearts, likely playing an important and prestigious role in Forsworn society, are all male (conversely, Hagravens are only ever female), though one anonymous contributor to the wiki speculates: “There are no female Briarhearts. This may be an oversight or maybe due to censorship, as the hole with the briarheart flower inside is always on the chest, and if the briarheart was a female, then the breasts would be exposed. Hence, no female Briarhearts.”

Forsworn
A Forsworn Briarheart. Image from The Elder Scrolls Wiki.

Other clues as to gender roles in Skyrim can be found in NPC dialogue. The famous line, “What’s the matter? You can’t stand the sight of a strong Nord woman?” uttered by various female Nord NPCs (and now the title of a Bachelors thesis on Nord culture in Skyrim, albeit in Swedish) seems to suggest that woman’s physical strength is something of an anomaly in Skyrim, though an anomaly that particular Nord woman demonstrate exceptions to. Ahlam’s dialogue is more to the point: “Men are all alike, from Skyrim to Hammerfell. They care only for war and politics, and treat their women like cattle.” But this may have more to do with her unhappy marriage to Nazeem than it does provide an accurate depiction of gender relations across Skyrim. Again, it seems as if Skyrim attempts a kind of token embrace of egalitarian gender roles (with a few exceptions), in order to be more inclusive, though without providing an internal rationale for doing so. I’d be interested if anyone has any differing intepretations.

One particularly interesting aspect of gender roles in Skyrim is to be found in the cult of Dibella, the goddess of love and beauty. As far as I know, the cult typically only admits female adherents. This is one case in which dialogue to the player differs depending on the player’s gender. In midst of the quest, The Heart of Dibella (see also), the priestess Hamal can inform the player:

“You, my dear, can earn the Blessing of Dibella. You’ll find men to be more pliable in the future… or more vulnerable.”

OR, if the player’s character is male: “Have you heard of the Blessing of Dibella? It can help you with the wooing of women, if that’s your aim. Or give you strength if you happen to offend one. Typically we avoid bestowing it upon men, but for the Sybil’s escort, we could make an exception.”

On completing The Heart of Dibella, the player gains the Agent of Dibella ability, which allows them to do 10% more damage to the opposite sex (again assuming a universal hetero- or bisexuality), something less than is implied in the priestess Hamal’s dialogue. What is hinted at in the depictions of Dibella, though, and in the dialogue with Hamal, becomes explicit in the quest, Caught Red Handed. Haelga, who runs a “bunkhouse” for workers, is also a follower of Dibella. This entails a particular kind of devotion. Check out this note from one of her lovers:

Until_next_time_01
Allow me to bring the trout. Image from The Elder Scrolls.

And Haelga’s conversation with her niece, Svana:

Svana: “Aunt Haelga, why do you…demean yourself with these people you barely know? They show no real love for you.”
Haelga: “Its only a bit of fun. You’re a lovely young thing, you should try it sometime.”
Svana: “No! I’m saving myself for someone special. Someone who loves me dearly.”

Finally, one contributor to the wiki has the following to note:

Her reputation is further justified with contextual evidence from her bedroom: a bed with shackles, a shelf full of stamina potions, a horker tusk and leather strips underneath her bed, a jar of honey and more leather strips on the dresser, The Lusty Argonian Maid Vol 1 and Vol 2, a bottle of Falmer Blood Elixir (which Brynjolf says will allow one to “make love like a sabre cat”)…

Apart from the player joining Svana to slut-shame her aunt, Haelga’s exploits and those of the cult of Dibella suggest a potentially sex-positive side of Skyrim. This is especially the case if Skyrim society is largely egalitarian and the encounters are consensual. But I’m not yet convinced that Skyrim has thought deeply enough about gender relations to make this claim. As argued above, it is instead simply an attempt at a tokenistic inclusivity. And in the context of boob armour, etc., the potential sex positivity of the cult of Dibella quickly becomes just another way of appealing to the hetero male playership.

Afterword

This post grew from a paragraph or two introducing a post that was intially intended to address religion in Skyrim, the latter which, at the time of writing this, has not yet been written. I have worked from my own experience of playing Skyrim and have not taken the time to read other treatments of gender and sexuality in Skyrim. If you are aware of any quality ones, please let me know in the comments. I have read Sophie Prell’s piece, which focusses on different features of the gameplay as well as problematic aspects outside of the game in its marketing and playership.