[…] The symbol of the monster, the abject, exists to embody and assuage our fears of the natural and unruly body. In order to maintain the current social order, which privileges the intellectual and social over the emotional and biological, fat bodies must become monstrous. They are failures. They are the abnormal that delineates the boundaries of normalcy.
– Monstrous Freedom: Charting Fat Ambivalence by Lesleigh J. Owen
One of the more terrifying enemies in Dragon Age: Origins, later repeated in Dragon Age: Awakening is the broodmother. Mama Darkspawn.
The reason that the broodmother is terrifying relies heavily on the introduction to her through Codex snippets, but primarily through how the enemy is foreshadowed. I will not lie. The introduction to the broodmother is masterful and the narrative around the enemy is terrifying. It’s obvious from Hespith’s story – our guide to the horror that is the broodmother – that the real reason why she and her fellow women dwarves are being turned into monsters is the betrayal of Branka, paragon and supposed leader of an entire house (a noble family of dwarves) chose to trade her friends and lovers for her ambition.
Fortunately(!), Branka isn’t the only manipulative bastard in the game, or I might have called sexism on her. The broodmother, however, in all her horrific glory, does have a few issues that are worth mentioning. These issues are only underlined by the broodmother in Dragon Age: Awakening.
As usual when my foray into unknown territory makes me uncertain or curious, I read books and articles to get a better understanding of why, how, what, when and where. In this case, some of the theory of otherness has already been covered to a high extent by books about feminism in general, and so I won’t get into that list here.
I did pick out a few articles and books on the topic of being fat as a transgression and why we view fat as grotesque. Surprising absolutely no one, it’s an idea that’s been around for quite a while, carried across the centuries by that cultural institution we call the Church and Christianity. Maybe more on that later.
The books and articles for this specific round of reading are:
- The World of Thedas: Volume 1, Edited by Cori May, Mary Kirby and Carlo Lynch, Dark Horse Books
- The World of Thedas: Volume 2, Edited by Cori May and Cameron Harris, Dark Horse Books
- Fat is a Feminist Issue, 2nd Edition by Susie Orbach, Penguin Books
- Monstrous Freedom: Charting Fat Ambivalence by Lesleigh J. Owen, Fat Studies Journal
- Fat by Deborah Lupton, Routledge
The reason for reading up on fat studies in particular is because the broodmother is pretty much all fat. She’s fat and female. Combining two areas of Otherness that make her an almost perfect storm of fear, disgust, and transgression.
If you’ve read my post about fembots, you know that we’ve dragged the fear of women’s sexuality along for quite some time. For those of you who haven’t this is a bit of a long read, but it explains a lot. Men have always found women’s sexuality to be a bit intimidating. Combine this with the idea that women are defective men and you’ve got a nice little mix. Pour this misogynist cake batter into the church and some particularly neurotic church fathers around 400-ish and you get a beautiful misogyny cake that we’ve been munching on ever since.
Basically, the church fathers decided that women were responsible for original sin and some of the church fathers were super neurotic about sex – and also eating – which led to the idea that ascetism and self-denial is a good thing™, and so women’s sexuality (and food!) became something evil.
The broodmother is playing specifically on the fear of women’s reproductive system. In addition to this, the broodmother’s body is also transgressive because it is fat and – to absolutely no one’s surprise ever – we also fear the otherness of fat.
You’ve probably wondered what this “other” business is that I keep bringing up in many of my posts (or maybe just this one). Othering is the process of mentally classifying a group or individual as separate from “us”. It’s the process of boiling down a multifaceted person with thoughts, emotions, motivations and ideas – humanity – into a caricature or stereotype of themselves and through that process of stereotyping classify them as less than human.
Othering is a super powerful psychological tactic that all of us use and we do it all the time.
What is important to note in particular for this blog post and for any feminist discourse is that in this context the self – the “not othered” starting point – is a white man.
We’ve built Western society on that premise. Everything that isn’s a white man is “other”.
How do I know this? Take a look at the world and tell me that everything from the size of the tools we use to the power structures of government around us wasn’t built with that single starting point in mind.
Actually, I’m sure there are people who honestly believe this isn’t the case, but I’m not one of them.
Anyway. This is where we start. White, “normal sized” men. This is the “self” that determines the rest of everything.
Because women are “other”, all of those hidden and mysterious processes around the concept of pregnancy and procreation are also scary. The broodmother is pretty much reduced to exactly that. She’s a womb, spewing out non-human enemies tirelessly and relentlessly.
She’s reduced to her biological function (one of her biological functions!) to procreate. And of course that is the one biological function that women don’t necessarily share with men 1. Huh, imagine that.
In Origins and later in Awakening, the broodmother is basically “evil women’s biological functions” incarnate and serves to demonise both women’s sexuality and their reproductive system. So, double whammy! But wait! There’s more!
In addition to vilifying women’s sexuality and ability to procreate, the broodmother is made even more terrifying to “the self” by being allowed to swell, expand and grow really, really fat.
Women’s bodies are conceptualized as permeable, leaky, more open to the world by virtue of their supposed volatile emotionality and their particularly female body processes such as menstruation, lactation, pregnancy, birth and menopause, all of which involve the uncontrolled exiting of bodily fluids from their bodies. The bodily states of pregnancy and childbirth also challenge the notions of Self/ Other, of the containment of the subject, in their blurring of the boundaries between one’s body and that of another body. […] Cultural responses to fat female bodies draw upon these already well-established ideas about the uncontained, uncontrolled female body.
– Fat by Deborah Lupton
It’s important – in other words – to note that the individual losing control over their bodies to create darkspawn are all women. There are no male broodmothers, despite the fact that the process to create a broodmother must contain some magic. But men in the world of Thedas are spared this fate.
As an aside, the movie Slither does a similar thing with the alien creature that’s trying to take over a small town. The alien creature, however, does not discriminate between bodies. It uses both men and women for its purposes. Actually, the movie Alien does it as well. It does not discriminate, and I think Alien is pretty horrifying despite being equal opportunity.
Let’s get back to the broodmother. In addition to only women becoming broodmothers, a broodmother is created by force feeding women taint and corpses. In addition to that, the implication is that women singled out to become broodmothers are raped repeatedly.
First day they come and catch everyone
Second day they beat us and eat some for meat
Third day the men are all gnawed on again
Fourth day we wait and fear for our fate
Fifth day they return and it’s another girl’s turn
Sixth day her screams we hear in our dreams
Seventh day she grew as in her mouth they spew
Eight day we hated as she is violated
Ninth day she grins and devours her kin
Now she does feast as she’s become the beast
– Hespith, Dragon Age: Origins
Hespith goes on to describe how the darkspawn spare the men by killing or tainting them with the blight while the women are force fed and raped repeatedly until they’ve turned into broodmothers.
Hespith is on her way to become what Laryn has become, but she’s trying to resist. She describes how Laryn turned, ate her husband’s face and started giving birth to darkspawn.
Women should fear fat and men should fear women out of control. Because the broodmother, or the woman who is intended to become a broodmother is also raped, she becomes tainted not only in body but in soul. When women are raped or sexually abused by men, society has a tendency to lay the blame at the feet of the women.
In many ways, women are still being held responsible for men’s sexuality and although those attitudes have started to change, that responsibility is something women has had to live with for a long time.
We’re being whammied all over with the broodmother. It’s horrific because it plays on the fear of women’s sexuality, reproduction, body and soul and fouls it completely. It also reinforces all that otherness through doing so. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that broodmothers are force fed, violated women with a perverted reproductive system. In fact, I think it’s inevitable. Through the transformation, women are reduced to base desires. Hunger, sex, reproduction. All of them insatiable and clearly visible on the oh so fat exterior of the broodmother.
Grotesque bodies deviate from the norm, mainly by exceeding it. They defy clear definitions and borders and occupy the liminal middle ground between life and death. They are permeable and uncontained, transgressive of their own limits. They are the embodiment of ambiguity, which in itself creates apprehension in a cultural context in which ambiguity challenges privileged notions of certainty. Grotesque bodies are, above all, carnal; that is, they are overtly fleshly and expressive of desiger rather than the neutral containers for the disembodied consciousness which is such a valued ideal of the body in Western culture.
– Fat by Deborah Lupton
The reason why this is a problem, why the fatness of the broodmother, her otherness, is distressing is because these baked in prejudices and stereotypes reinforce the ideas of women as other, of fat people as monstrous, of women’s sexuality as ultimately dangerous and of the idea that a “normal” body, when tainted by food or sex can become grotesque.
I think my main point of rebellion is that the broodmother perpetuates the idea that fat people are stupid and lazy, and it does so through the broodmother in Awakening.
Awakening is a DLC for Origins, although I would argue it’s almost a stand alone game. In it, the Grey Warden is asked to come to Amaranthine to investigate an attack on the Grey Wardens at Vigil’s Keep.
The attack seems to have been led by darkspawn, and if that wasn’t enough, the darkspawn talk. As the game progresses, the story uncovers two factions of darkspawn, an aggressive faction led by the Mother and a more peaceful contingent led by the Architect.
Are we repeating a pattern here, you ask? Yes, yes we are, because as expected the Architect is intelligent, controlled and soft spoken whereas the Mother… is not. She’s irrational emotional and impulsive. She’s also aggressive and loud.
Here’s the twist, though. Because the broodmother in Awakening is provided with intelligence, no matter how chaotic or irrational it is, her body is also provided with intelligence. The way this is done is by slimming her upper body down considerably. The Mother in Awakening is still grotesque, but in comparison to the unintelligent broodmother in Origins (and for that matter in other locations in Awakening) this grotesqueness focuses more on a disturbing sexualised upper body, slim and with kinda perky breasts.
So to be smart, or relatively intelligent, the fatness had to go.
My problem with the broodmother in Origins is that it reinforces the view of fat people as unintelligent and unable to control themselves. It further underscores that fat is a disease and that becoming fat is something all of us should avoid, because yuk! It also demonises women’s ability to have children and it reinforces the idea that a woman who’s been raped is somehow tainted.
What to do?
I love the broodmother introduction in Origins. I think it’s one of the best introductions ever. It’s terrifying. At the same time I wish that the same care and concern that went into creating and imagining something like the broodmother had an equal representation in male coded enemies.
There’s the adjutant in Mass Effect 3: Omega, and at some point I’ll write a post about why the adjutant doesn’t really live up to the horror of the broodmother.
The ultimate goal has to be to realise which buttons designs like these press and which harmful stereotypes they reinforce so that we as designers can make an effort to counter them even as we build enemies like these.
The broodmother should be allowed to exist and I’m sort of happy that she does, because yikes! But allow for something to counter the stereotype in the game. As a bare minimum – be aware of which negative representations you as a designer is reinforcing. As a masterclass – avoid them and take the time to create something equally terrifying that isn’t reliant on negative stereotypes of women’s sexuality, otherness or transgressive nature.
See? Super easy.