Last week, Rovio released Angry Birds Stella, the latest game in the Angry Birds family. I’m going to be talking about this a lot over the next week, but for today, let’s talk about the first thing that clearly jumps out, the thing that we can’t ignore (nor should we).
The protagonist of Angry Birds Stella is female.
Her identity is core to the game’s identity. Her name, Stella (written in smooth, flowing strokes), dwarfs the Angry Birds logo (written in rough blocky lettering). On the loading/title screen, she takes up nearly a third of the screen space. The game’s icon, which represents the game to all its players, is a confident shot of her face.
Angry Birds is enormous, and using a female protagonist in its latest game is a major step forward in an industry unfortunately dominated by a single gender and where protagonists are male by default. Stella has been placed in the spotlight, but has she been placed there responsibly?
The first thing that’s bound to come up is that she’s got an awful lot of gender signifiers on her. Her name is written in pretty flowing lines. She’s got prominent eyelashes. On the app icon, one of her head-feathers is bent over her face, suggesting long hair. Also, she’s pink. I realize it might be a silly question to ask if this female protagonist is too female, and that’s not really a question I think I can answer. We live in a society where beings are assumed to be male by default. Signifiers have to be added to indicate that these characters are female. We don’t live in a world where Pac-Man needs a mustache so we understand that he’s male. We look at Pac-Man and make a completely arbitrary assumption that he’s male.
On this subject, I feel that it might have been an unfortunate necessity to go heavy on feminine signifiers to communicate without any doubt that Stella is a female bird, or people would assume she was male. However, it may have gone a bit far. One friend assumed that all of the other birds present were males. Stella’s female signifiers were so strong that it ended up overshadowing the female signifiers in the other characters; her pinkness drowns out everyone else’s eyelashes. At least she isn’t wearing a bow.
The second question that comes to mind is this: Is this just Angry Birds For Girls? There’s a lot of “For Girls” versions of things, and I think it’s unnecessarily harmful to assume that toy products are, by default, for boys. I mean, take a look at this thing:
It’s Jenga. “Girl Talk” pink Jenga, advertising itself with phrases like “Solid wood blocks are pretty in pink!” I’m sure the product designers meant well, but when you release a special Jenga for girls, you’re saying that regular Jenga is for boys.
Fortunately, Rovio didn’t intend this. Blanca Juti, Rovio’s Chief Marketing Officer stated, “Just as I hope people don’t think Star Wars is for boys, I hope they don’t say this is just for girls.” In fact, she takes it a step further. “We want to challenge stereotypes, both on girls – that they only play easy games – and on boys, that they don’t like anything pink. We really want to challenge this, and there is already a bit of a movement around it.” I’m pleasantly surprised by this stance. They intend to challenge stereotypes going both ways! From what I’ve played, the game is certainly about as difficult as your regular Angry Birds game, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. Outside of the main character being pink instead of red, it looks just like any other Angry Birds game, albeit with a tropical flair. The map selection uses flowers to represent levels, but I associated them more with the tropical theme than with being girly. It didn’t even occur to me that they could be read as feminine until I was about to hit “Publish”.
Over half of the people who watched the game’s trailer on Facebook are men, so maybe this game will be a force for positive social change. However, I admit I’m not completely certain of that; men and boys are not the same thing. While the trailer has attracted a lot of male attention on Facebook, Facebook’s users are not, primarily, children. I love the pink protagonist, but I’m not sure that a little boy would. If we end up with a scenario where Stella enjoys an adult male audience but not a young male audience, I suppose that would count as an improvement, even though it falls short of my hopes. At the very least, I hope that a boy who isn’t interested in Stella might reconsider if he sees an older relative playing.
In spite of all this ambiguity, there’s one element that I feel is a clear step in the right direction. Stella is a powerful heroine of action.
When the Stella character first debuted in Angry Birds Seasons, her special ability was that she could blow bubbles to trap blocks and pigs. Now, she can change her trajectory in mid-flight at a moment’s notice, turning into a ricocheting meteor that smashes her way through physical and social barriers. She’s an active protagonist with energy to burn, and she feels powerful. Sure, she’s pink and girly, but I think that might ultimately work in her favor. She can be a fun and powerful protagonist without having to abandon feminine traits or adopt masculine ones, and if audiences of all ages and genders can embrace that, that would be fantastic.
I realize I’ve brought up a lot of points of contention in this post, and I just want to make it clear that I feel that Angry Birds Stella has a lot of positive social potential. It’s a game with a female protagonist who carries power while embracing stereotypical femininity, they’ve created a deliberate link between stereotypical femininity and power, sending a strong message that being a hero is not exclusively a masculine trait. Stella is being welcomed by men, so maybe we’ll see more female protagonists going forward. It’s not perfect; while her signifiers embrace femininity, it might be playing too close to stereotypes, and might also turn off some male gamers. Still, I feel that if a male and female gamers alike can enjoy a popular game with a heroic female protagonist, that’s a great step down the right path.