A Woman of Privilege: My Love Letter to Vivienne
Please welcome Nat back for another great guest post!
As more and more people finish up Dragon Age: Inquisition, I can’t help but chuckle a bit at some of the reactions to Vivienne: “She’s privileged,” “I don’t like how she’s so condescending,” “She’s mean to my Inquisitor.” Well, yes. Yes she is. And that’s kind of the point. Vivienne is all of those things and she doesn’t apologize for it, which is why I love her and others should too.
Vivienne may be selfish, pragmatic, and opportunistic but she’s not inherently evil or malicious. However, being selfish is viewed as a negative quality by our society at large. We’re taught to share and put others before ourselves– to give, but not take–all of which can be a bit disingenuous. There are destructive, selfish behaviors which negatively impact others for sure, but what about fighting for a promotion at work? Or advocating for one’s own creations, such sharing art, writing, etc.? Is Vivienne’s desire to influence others any worse than the behaviors I just described?
I know in the United States we’re socialized to root for the “little guy,” the underdog. I find the visceral reactions to Vivienne interesting because she is, technically, one of the “little people” who overcame the odds. Mages are second-class citizens throughout Thedas yet Vivienne manages to take control of her own fate. She transfers between Circles, from Ostwick to Montisimmard, becomes the lover of a powerful noble, and gains a voice in the halls of power. Who wouldn’t want to be in a position of influence, to have the ear of an empress? I’d argue that’s inspirational, probably even for other mages.
However, people see a character reinforcing a system of inequality and the outrage ensues: “how can she support the Circles and ignore the plight of her fellow mages? How dare she oppress her own kind!” For one, Vivienne believes she is helping her people by arguing to bring back the Circle of Magi. It protects mages from hurting non-magic users and mages from the general populace. But again, given the events which have transpired since Anders blew up the Kirkwall Chantry, I can see why she feels the artificial and physical barriers between magic users and non-magic users are needed. The question of individual rights versus security is an interesting debate, both within Thedas and the real world. To have a character clearly on the side of “good” (opposing the “bad” that Corypheus represents), taking an unpopular stance in the debate is a bold, creative choice which adds a neat dynamic for the player to experience.
More importantly, from a narrative perspective I love Vivienne because we so rarely find female characters acting from positions of power who aren’t the player character. I find people often tolerate a male character doing questionable things from a position of privilege, but refuse to accept a woman doing the same actions. What if it had been Ser Cautherin instead of Logain calling the retreat at Ostagar? Would people be able to see her point of view or would she get written off as some sort of monstrous bitch? Or how about Empress Celene? Celene, while a flawed character, caught a lot of crap for some of her choices and how she treated her lover. Do I see fans crucifying King Alistair for not fighting for the freedom of the elves of Ferelden? If Alistair treated an elven lover in the same fashion Celene did, would he be viewed as a man put in a difficult position or a villain?
While I certainly don’t agree with all of the things Vivienne may say in the game, I still love her. I love that she’s assertive and has no time for people’s bullshit. I love that, if you get to know her, you can catch a glimpse of some vulnerability–though it is gone in the blink of an eye; possibility turned into another tool to gain some political leverage. Vivienne, like so many of the women in Dragon Age, is a great example of a strong female character because she is not defined just by one trait, but reflects the complex reality of competing interests we all face in our day-to-day lives.
(image source: Dragon Age: Inquisition, Bioware and EA Games)