Does History defend the tradition of Male Protagonists?

I enjoy finding parallels between Gaming and History, and the treatment of gender in each field shows some commonality. Within the realm of video games, gender is a topic of debate/discussion/angry rants all of itself. The representation of women is continuously dissected and revaluated. It’s not something that should have to be so scrutinised, but it’s good that the discussion is so positive a lot of the time. In History, women are also considered as a separate topic for discussion a great deal of the time. It’s not ideal, but to avoid the topic at all would be far worse.

[Educational Warning – this blog contains mild amounts of learning and me being more grown-up than usual]

Whenever you might learn or teach a topic from any era, a section of that study will be devoted the study of the women. If you are studying World War 2, there will be one chapter or lesson on the ‘role of women in WW2’. From one perspective, it may seem a shame that the distinction between male and female must be made. Yet this is our History; we can learn from it and agree/disagree with it. The role of men and women has been diverse since the beginning.


“Women in gaming” and “women in History” are therefore equally defined and distinct topics within a broader field. What I find odd is how these two topics often intertwine, especially when gender in videogames is being evaluated. On numerous occasions I have heard the case for the defence of male protagonists because ‘History shows us x” or “this protagonist should be male because women didn’t do x” or “men were knights/soldiers, so it makes more sense”, and so on. It seems like a sensible, logical argument, which is not intended as a reinforcement to gender bias (you would hope).

In the past, I have made various connections between games and historic events. I’ve picked out historic bits of Skyrim and presented real life gun-blades and animal weapons. This time around though, I’m assessing a topic which, three months ago, I honestly had very little understanding of. I would never pretend to be the expert in any topic, but in this scenario I am quite the novice. I recently began reading up on female fighters with one specific question in mind: does History help the arguments against women warriors in videogames or not?

Today, I wish to address this particular line of argument, and debate whether Historic evidence does in fact support the notion that certain protagonists should be male. To keep the debate trim, I’m narrowing the focus to warriors – does History show that the female contribution in times of conflict is largely passive? Or is the female combatant overlooked for some reason? There are many arguments for why there should be more/less male/female characters in games, but which side does History land on?

The addition of a female character or the option of gender in a historic game (or a fantasy game with a historic theme) often draws scrutiny. Whilst gamers are often happy to play as whomever, many gamers question whether women would actually be in that role. Whilst this view is often shot down by those arguing that it’s “only a game” or that the “world is fictional”, if you take a piece of History to set your game against, you do take the stereotypes and predispositions with it. If the fantasy or science fiction world is a “Kingdom”, then the ruler is a “king”, and the society is patriarchal. A game might implicitly challenge the notion of gender roles, but many gamers will approach with the belief that the knight or soldier is a male occupation. To alter that perspective, there has to be evidence that women did fight.

If you had asked me Last year to name women warmongers from History, I would have fared poorly. I would have first thought of Mulan, but then reminded myself that she is almost certainly mythical. I would then have created a list of just two people: Joan of Arc and Boudicca of the Iceni. However, only one of these women was (possibly) a fighter. The former may have charged into battle on chariot, as her statue suggests, but the latter only wore armour for show and provided inspiration to her army, never going into combat. Upon my earliest investigation, this began to present as a common theme.


Whenever I came across a new famous warrior woman, I discovered that they played the part of commander rather than a front line warrior. Fu Hao, high priestess and all-round military powerhouse during the Shang Dynasty, was responsible for numerous successful military campaigns, but as a General. By the thirteenth century, the Georgian state was at the height of its power thanks to the ingenuity and military success of Queen Tamar, but said military success seems reliant on her subordinates. Elizabeth I is famous for crushing the Spanish Armada in 1588, but her contribution can be reduced down to an inspiring speech at Tilbury. Many women saw battle, and proved women can wage war, but in many cases they were at the back.

This does of course show that female characters could play leadership roles within an historically affected videogame setting.  If the game in question is a strategy game, for example, then the protagonist leading those troops does not have to be a man.

There’s a curious trend amongst the tales of female warriors; many of these women became combatants because a man in their life couldn’t fulfil their role. Boudicca takes on the Roman legions in Britain because her husband dies and the Romans think they can dethrone her. Zenobia of Palymra, an Arab queen, took hold of her husband’s military after his assassination. I’m not sure how the gender-minded proportion of the gaming world would react to a protagonist storyline based on this premise. On the one hand, the protagonist would be proving they can perform a masculine task, but on the other hand they are only able to prove themselves because the man isn’t around.

For many of the female war leaders, whether or not they actually fought their own battles is not always clear. I read about the courageous efforts of Laskarina Bouboulina – heiress, revolutionary and naval commander – who organised and funded her own personal regiment in the Greek War of Independence, but I’ve not actually seen definite proof that she herself took up arms. I hope a greater historian than me can provide the details. Whilst these leaders often wore the armour and weapons of their male warriors, few female fighters followed their forces into the fray. It’s also important to note that many of these women war male armour; few of them would go in for boob-shaped plate mail.

As I dug a little deeper, I began to find exceptions to the rule. Tomoe Gozen was the first real fighter I came across. If you’ll pardon my mild misogamy: what a woman. It turns out she has already made the leap (sort of) into videogames via Persona 4, but from what I’ve seen it doesn’t do her justice. Whilst much of her life history has been entwined with legend, it is clear that she was an incredible archer and swordsman swoman sperson, as well as an impressive cavalry fighter. At the Battle of Awazu, Tomoe Gozen faced a force of over 5,000 cavalry with only 300 accompanying cavalry from her Lord, Kiso. She is allegedly one of only five of Kiso’s warriors that survived the subsequent massacre, and only left the battlefield when ordered to do so. She cut the head of the nearest and most important looking enemy combatant, then left begrudgingly. The term ‘Samurai’ may be a male term, but I see a video game protagonist right here.


As aforementioned, Mulan is most likely fictional. Yet the story of a woman pretending to be a man is very real. This brings us back to that trend of female fighters taking the male role. In the 14th century Agnes Hotot, from the House of Dudley, put on her father’s armour. Her father had died an hour before fighting a duel against a man he’d argued with. So Agnes went in his place. Not only did she win the fight – she knocked the man off his horse with a lance – she then decided to humiliate the man. Where some would have settle for a derisive “ha-ha! You just got beaten by a girl, na-na-na-nana”, Agnes took it a few steps further, exposing her hair and bosom to the crowd. She made it very clear that a woman had just knocked a man down.

I wish I’d have been there… to see the looks on the faces of the crowd. No other reason.

Ever heard of a Shieldmaiden? It’s a term most will recognise from Lord of the Rings (take a moment to remember how awesome Éowyn is). For me it was also a term assigned to Norse mythology. Lagertha is a Viking woman of legend that chose to fight alongside male Viking warriors. In one battle she apparently used her ‘delicate frame’ to her advantage, sneak-attacking the enemy from behind and scaring the mead right off of them. To my delight, I recently discovered that shieldmaidens are potentially real, and there might be quite a lot of them. Early archaeological assumptions have led to the misidentification of Viking skeletons – women aren’t buried with swords, so this one must be a dude – and there’s increasing evidence to suggest that Norse women went on raids alongside men. What proportion were women, and in what era they were most prevalent, time will hopefully tell.


Stories like Tomoe Gozen and Agnes Hotot are few and far between, often shrouded by legends and suffering from a lack of historical study. Try as I might to find the full picture of ancient female warriors, like the Shieldmaiden, evidence is very fresh or very limited. Nevertheless, the evidence is there. They might be the exceptions to the rule, but the exception is often more interesting than the norm. What’s more, when we see that women who either fought or led battles, it demonstrates that women can fight. I didn’t need History to know that, but History shows us that if a character in a video game is female and a fighter, then it’s justified. Fictional male warriors are often placed in non-fictional environments because that makes sense to us. Well, now female warriors in the same role should make sense too.

Final Thoughts

There are many positive factors that should be considered when choosing a characters gender. Sometimes a character ‘should be’ male or female for a particular reason, and in other cases the player can be given the choice because it doesn’t affect the game in any way.

What is clear is that History does not provide the definitive defence for why a historic (or historically influenced) game should have a male protagonists. Female fighters are in short supply throughout History, but they do exist. They are also quite awesome.

Thank You For Reading

Author: Rufus Scott

I am a long term Gamer, a full-time History Teacher and a part-time geek. I enjoy writing about the positive aspects of gaming, especially when it comes to education. My posts are sometimes nostalgic, occasionally irrelevant, largely meant to provoke further discussion. I'll sometimes punctuate these whimsical ramblings with a random comment on gaming and/or teaching.

2 thoughts on “Does History defend the tradition of Male Protagonists?”

  1. I know you wrote this over a year ago, but I just stumbled across your blog ( via your gun-sword post, no less) and wanted to say thank you for sharing your research and your thoughts.

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