Ash has been playing "Dragon Age" since the first game's release. She enjoys exploring and explaining the characters and the lore.
Isabela is a pirate queen who first appears in Dragon Age: Origins to teach the Warden how to duel (and have a threesome/foursome as a gag).
She's a character I've always loved, so when Dragon Age 2 gave us the chance to romance her, I was pretty happy. I romanced Fenris first, though (I always romance the new character first just to get their story), but after romancing Isabela and learning more about her, I was hooked.
I especially loved dueling the Arishok for her, romancing her across each act, and watching her slowly fall in love with Hawke, even if she did resist, kicking and screaming, the whole way.
But after years of playing this game, I've finally come to the realization that . . . I actually prefer Merrill. Sadly, I think I've just outgrown the immature, loose, pirate queen.
She's Literally a Walking Gag
When I was younger playing these games (God, I can't believe this was nearly ten years ago . . .) I recall being baffled that Isabela was written to be such a strongly feminist character . . . and yet walked around looking like the typical example of video game objectification so many female characters have been subjected to.
She would make (valid) criticisms about male oppression, much to the bafflement of male gamers, who thought she just had an irrational "chip" on her shoulder.
A good example would be the quest in Act I that sets up Hawke's mother's death. If you bring along Isabela and Merrill to save Emeric in Darktown, they will have the following exchange,
Isabela: A woman goes missing, you either don't find her at all . . . or you find her body.
Merrill: Isabela, that's awful!
Isabela: But it's the truth, kitten. The world isn't kind to women.
I paraphrased from memory but that is the gist of the exchange. There's nothing false or even hateful about what Isabela says. Like me in my many articles here, she simply acknowledges the realities of violence and degradation that women have to live with in a male dominated world. And yet, male gamers act like she is screaming for the deaths of all men. If anything, Isabela is just tired of the way women are treated and frequently comments on it. She doesn't coddle the male players in the audience by pausing to shout "Not all men!" or pretending men as a group aren't responsible for oppressing women. She doesn't coddle their feelings at all, which is why they see her as "hateful" and "irrational."
Isabela was basically about naming the problem (men), unapologetically and pretty bluntly, while encouraging the other female party members (even Aveline) to love themselves and not give a sh*t. This is about as feminist as a character can get. But then . . . She would turn around and say something about not bedding the men in her crew because they would lose respect for her when they'd seen her ass in the air.
Umm . . . Isabela, your ass is always in the air . . .
Isabela's scantily clad appearance just didn't line up with anything that came out of her mouth. And even her promotional short story (where she gives the excuse that her decent clothes are at the bottom of the sea) just seemed to give weak excuses for what was obviously a fan service character.
But then I started paying attention, and I realized that . . . Isabela is a walking joke. She's a gag. A deliberate inversion of the objectified female character so often seen in video games. She looks like the typical fan service sex object in boob armor, and yet what comes out of her mouth is feminist, don't-give-a-sh*t, f*ck men dogma.
In hindsight, she's actually a brilliant character. She's not a two-dimensional pixel robot who exists to please the male gamer and stroke his ego. She is not merely fan service. She is completely her own person, to the point that you have to earn her love and you don't get it immediately. You have to wait until practically the end of the game to hear that she loves you, and the most touching scene in her romance also comes in the Gallows, at the very end.
Hell, she even betrays you, leaving you to fight a horde of qunari alone. That's how much she doesn't worship or serve the player and/or Hawke.
Isabela has all the appearance of being "easy" but she's actually the most difficult romance by far (and I say this as someone who romanced Fenris as a anti-Circle mage). By "difficult," I mean that it takes a long time to get to a place where she actually loves you and commits to you, whereas the other romances (even Fenris) let you know that they care almost immediately.
The fact that she is written as a three dimensional character (a person with an entire backstory and flaws) makes her one of the most feminist characters probably in the Dragon Age franchise, but on the surface she's portrayed like the two-dimensional boob-character male gamers are used to, so that most of them don't even realize what the writers are doing.
And I can't really judge them. In the beginning, I didn't get it either. I was just annoyed by what I perceived as another shameless objectification of a female character. So I didn't pay attention.
Also, I was distracted by boobs.
So you're probably wondering why this is such a bad thing that I would stop romancing Isabela. Well . . . who wants to romance a gag character that, because she is an actual gag, was not supposed to be taken seriously?
Isabela is great if you just want to have a silly playthrough, especially if you roll Sarcastic/Purple Hawke. That's the point of her. And she's actually a great fit for Hawke, whose father was a pirate who ran with the Crimson Oars. Also, Hawke herself starts out a criminal either as a smuggler or a mercenary. Given all this, I think it would be easy to roleplay Isabela as being the perfect match for Hawke.
But I'd always prefer for my protagonist to find happiness, not drama and angst. Hawke can't find that with a character who was never meant to be taken seriously to begin with.
Isabela is a Terrible Person
I always felt like romancing Isabela was like being with Jack Sparrow. Because every time fans complained about her being awful, I would think of Jack Sparrow saying in exasperation to Will Turner's eternal astonishment at his shameless dastardliness,
It's like . . . Isabela is literally a raider. She steals, kills, loots, invades, pillages, smuggles, and burns. Do people expect her to be a saint? And yet, there were constantly fans harping on about her (gasp!) smuggling poison and stealing the tome of Koslun to save her own neck and lying to Hawke, etc.
I was never bothered by any of it because I knew Isabela was supposed to be a pirate with a secret heart of gold, like Jack Sparrow, and I was down with this delightful trope. Hell, the game even puts a lampshade on it by having Sarcastic/Purple Hawke and Anders both flat-out say that Isabela has a secret heart of gold.
But there came a time when I drew the line.
We find out in the comics (which I will forever loath) that according to David Gaider, Isabela lied about setting those slaves free. In fact, she drowned them to save her own hide, after agreeing to traffick them in the first place and nearly getting caught.
She's a . . . despicable person. Once again, it calls me back to Jack Sparrow sacrificing a hundred souls to Davey Jones in Pirates of the Carribean just to save his own behind.
I couldn't love a person like that, and I don't think my Hawke (aka my extension of me) could either. Isabela felt bad about it later but didn't have enough sense to know or care that it was wrong to begin with?
This annoys me to all hell because I'm tired of how gleefully white writers seem to enjoy taking brown characters and making them slavers. Like they're going, "See! Brown people can be racist, too!" It's always something that has annoyed me in fantasy fiction. For example, the doctor's black father on Babylon 5 was racist against aliens and this smacked of the same sad, "See? Everyone can be racist!" crap that derails us from important conversations about white racism in America . . .
I'm not saying that brown characters should always be perfect little saints. But the intent behind always depicting us as a slavers like some kind of "Aha!" is . . . ironically as childish and despicable as Isabela herself.
Edit: A Different Perspective
So Angel has been one of my favorite shows since I was a teenager. I began a Buffy fan, but I started looking at Angel and wound up liking the show more. First, there was no "Buffy speak" (thank god) and second, I hated that Buffy wound up with Spike and defended him against Robin (after Spike unnecessarily beat the s*it out of Robin, who was trying to avenge his mother). But that's a discussion for some other article.
During a recent rewatch, I got to the episode where Charles Gunn, the token black guy (said jokingly), realizes that not all demons are bad and that killing them indiscriminately is wrong. Charles was basically racist against demons.
When I was younger, I was always annoyed by the black character being used to explore themes of racism. But now I suddenly see it for the allegory that it is.
Black characters (and characters "of color") have to be "the racist" on white dominated shows because it's the only way to teach white people about racism without making them feel targeted or attacked. If the brown character is racist, then anyone can be racist, and white people who are racist are more likely to listen without taking it personal or letting their feelings get in the way.
It's a tactic as old as time, though from a black person's perspective, it can come off to the exact opposite effect. Black people (and of course, people "of color" in general) always have to deal with our oppressors trying to make us out to be "just as bad" as they are, so when the only non-white character on a show is racist, it reeks of that.
I don't know why, but I just had the sudden realization that the depiction of the "racist minority" is actually a writing device with a good intention behind it. Out of nowhere, it just sort of clicked for me.
It's because, like the white people who are racist, my life experiences have colored my perception of the world. I deal with anti-black racism everyday that I am out in the world. Everyday. For thirty years. So everything I experience will be and has been interpreted through that lens. Including the fiction I consume.
I dunno. I wrote a lot of my most recent articles (including this one) while quarantined during the 2020 pandemic, and being isolated from people kind of forces you to do some introspection. It leaves me wondering how many people will come out of quarantine more thoughtful and compassionate and empathetic after months of alone time . . . and how many aren't even using this time to think and reflect and will continue being asshats with no empathy for the experiences of others (mostly straight male gamers who want us filthy minorities out of "their" games).
Most likely people will probably come out of quarantine just as self-centered and uncaring as before the pandemic began. Which is . . . truly depressing.
And here is where my edit ends.
And don't get me started on the way Isabela was beaten to the ground and called a w*ore by a man . . . That was god-awful. Why is every female non-warrior and non-human (aka "minority") degraded in this manner? Leliana and Fiona come to mind, but at least they were tortured off-screen.
Isabela has the sh*t beaten out of her "on-screen" in the comics, while being called a bunch of slurs and taunted about enjoying her husband's violation of her. Just . . . ugh. Unnecessarily, dis-proportionally brutal in comparison to anything the other characters endure.
Gaider loves torturing his female characters, but only if they aren't straight, white, Christian . . . I mean, Andrastian . . . warriors.
That aside, you're probably wondering why I was bothered by the comics and not by Isabela's actual in-game banter with Fenris.
A lot of fans hate Isabela because she has a few party banters where she sexualizes Fenris' abuse at the hands of Danarious, his master. These banters are . . . pretty disgusting.
But what a lot of people seem to forget is that Isabela herself is a victim of sex trafficking. She was sold by her mother at a very young age to an older man who proceeded to use her like a "plaything" (to use her own words).
Isabela is a victim of sexual abuse as surely as Fenris. It's the entire reason they gravitate to each other.
What most people don't realize is that a lot of sex abuse victims joke to downplay their abuse (the reasoning being that this makes it less painful), and this can often extend to them joking about the abuse of others to downplay it as well.
Isabela can't let herself feel sorry for Fenris because then she might care for him, and actually loving someone is "scary." So she teases him about his abuse, using it as a way to hit on him. I think Fenris understands this, and it's the reason why he doesn't get angry, instead entering a casual relationship with Isabela (provided Hawke doesn't romance either of them).
I've also noticed that Isabela turns on the s*x talk when someone starts talking about something personal she doesn't want to address. For example, Fenris will try to talk to her about the relic, and she will respond about how pretty his eyes are until he drops it. Also, if you romance Isabela and leave her for Merrill, Varric will ask if she's jealous. She will dismiss Hawke as a "dalliance" (ouch) and then hit on Varric.
I also think it says something about Varric that he's able to see through Isabela's bullshit and lies enough to even suspect her of being jealous and actually having feelings for Hawke. Then again, he is a professional liar.
Being flirty and dirty is a mask Isabela wears to protect herself. Hawke leaving her is a painful subject, so she dismisses it. Talking about the relic could land her in trouble, so she shuts Fenris down. She uses dirty talk frequently to shut down, rile up, or annoy others for her protection and/or amusement. She is actually a lot like Zevran in that regard, though in my opinion, he was much better at it (Zevran's banters with Wynne are the stuff of Dragon Age banter legend).
That said, it's my belief that Fenris wasn't really sexually abused. It's never really stated in the game that he was, which is likely the real reason Fenris doesn't care about Isabela's jokes.
To be fair, it's been years since I romanced Fenris or even recruited him for his content. I think the last time I did was five or six years ago when I was playing Garrett, the male Hawke. I recruited Fenris and romanced him as Garrett on the friendship path (as a mage) and I never got the feeling that Fenris was actually sexually abused.
His arc seemed to revolve around the lyrium tattoos and the revelation that they weren't forced on him, he chose it. It's even implied that he chose to become a lyrium warrior because he was jealous of his sister's magic and wanted to be a mage himself.
This is supposed to frame him as the ultimate hypocrite that he is, hating mages and yet he's literally a magic warrior who kills people savagely without hesitation. He even tells a story about mindlessly massacring the Fog warriors, a group of qunari who saved his life. I mean . . . Ugh. Why do people love Fenris? He's a murderous psycho.
No, I don't believe Fenris was sexually abused at all. But whether or not he was, Isabela sexualizing his "service" to Danarius isn't enough for me to hate her.
Instead, there are other reasons she annoys me.
She Never Shuts Up About Men
As a lesbian, this irritated me to no freaking end. Every single party banter she has is about some dude she banged ("It went on all night, under the stars."). She even has a banter with Anders where she talks about that time she banged him in The Pearl. This went on to the point where I asked myself if Hawke would want to be with someone who a) kept hitting on her brother and b) probably had slept with every male friend she had.
It will forever amaze me that male gamers were actually threatened and concerned by the fact that Isabela supposedly prefers women. I posit that she actually prefers men, because I've never seen her hit on a female character in the game aside from Hawke.
All the time it's men, men, men.
Yes, I know she tells Bethany that men are good for one thing and women are good for six, but she says that purely for the pleasure of shocking Bethany, which she does continuously throughout Act I.
In the DLC Mark of the Assassin, Hawke can flirt with Tallis in front of Isabela for the entirety of the content while romancing her. If Hawke is female, Isabela gets angry and borderline threatens Tallis.
A lot of male gamers were upset about this and started wondering if there was any "point" to romancing someone who prefers women. But I assure you, Isabela does not prefer women.
Unlike Isabela, Hawke takes being with a woman seriously and would easily fall in love with one. Isabela feels threatened by this and warns Tallis to back off.
It's the way lesbians feel threatened when their bis*xual girlfriends flirt with men. Bis*xeual women almost always go back to men and take them more seriously than they do women, so a male flirting with their girlfriend is a bigger threat to a lesbian.
It's the reverse situation for Isabela, a bisexual woman who is dating Hawke, who is possibly a lesbian. In other words, Isabela probably thinks male Hawke is just joking around and being charming, whereas female Hawke is serious and might actually leave Isabela for another woman.
She's a Damsel in Distress
Isabela is supposed to be some kind of badass, but she always needs rescuing and never has agency. That's fine for a minor character but it's not a reason for me to like her. I think it's actually . . . depressing . . . that she never once manages to save herself. Even as a freaking pirate queen, she still gets her ass handed to her regularly and needs someone to help her.
When Isabela is sold by her mother to a perverted older male, she doesn't find some clever way to rescue herself. Instead, Zevran kills her husband for her.
When Isabela is going to be taken by the qunari, Hawke has to duel the Arishok for her. To be honest, I always thought this was romantic and it made me romance Isabela just for this aspect of the story. I loved protecting her, if you will.
As a character, Isabela is just a plot device to make Hawke look cool. But this has the unfortunate side effect of making Isabela look weak as a person. Instead of facing the consequences of her actions and setting herself free, Isabela is forced yet again to stand aside and let someone else rescue her.
Hawke duels for Isabela's freedom when Isabela is literally a duelist and a slaver.
Oh, the irony.
To the writer's credit, this is at least acknowledged in the story, with Isabela saying something like, "Hey! If you're going to duel someone, duel me!" But it didn't serve to make her character look strong. It just highlighted the fact that this isn't her story, it's Hawke's.
That's not a bad thing. My point is, Isabela is always being rescued and in the end, it just makes her look weak, which is pretty unappealing to me. Even her quest in Act 3 has Hawke saving her from Castillon by coming up with an idea she was too dumb to think of. And at the end of the quest, she gets the credit by Castillon calling her a remarkable and dangerous woman . . . lmao.
I like for my protagonists to have friends and lovers who are their equals in badassery. This is largely the reason why Wrex was always one of my favorite characters in Mass Effect and Liara was my favorite romance (yes, she was saved from a bubble, but that was about subverting the audience's expectations. She was actually an over-powered kick-ass biotic all along).
Hawke Deserves to be Loved
Probably the final and largest reason I eventually realized I prefer Merrill is that Hawke deserves to be loved.
I wanted to add this perspective because I just went through something similar to Hawke's romance with Isabela, except that it was so toxic, it made me realize how . . . healthy this romance actually is compared to the other romances in Dragon Age 2.
I am more like Isabela than I'm willing to admit (which is why I took my Dark Ritual article down for revision . . . since it made me feel like the hypocrite that I am). I am not "promiscuous." In fact, I have tighter standards than Isabela (way tighter), but I went through a phase where I'd rather just have casual flings than anything serious. People frown on that sort of thing, but there are legitimate reasons to feel that way, as Isabela demonstrates in the game itself.
As my narcissistic personality disorder articles here would demonstrate, I come from a very broken past, so really having a serious committed relationship is . . . difficult for me. In fact, it's damn near impossible. And I've never misled anyone or pretended to want anything more. My recent "partner" wasn't very understanding of this. She wanted me to open up and get close and became bitter and resentful when I reinforced my boundaries, dissolving into a childish passive aggressive asshole until I had to cut contact with her. Thankfully, I never actually slept with her (we were just entertaining the notion) or it would have been ten times worse.
The point is, Hawke and Isabela are pretty damn good to each other. Hawke never pressures Isabela for a commitment, never shames her for wanting a casual relationship (the way my partner did me), and is willing to move on in order to honor Isabela's wishes.
Hawke and Isabela actually respect and care for each other.
It's also really sweet in Act 3 when Isabela asks Hawke to come away on her ship with her. Even if Hawke moved on with Merrill, Isabela can't stand the idea of losing Hawke and wants them to stay friends and stay together.
In my opinion, it's actually unhealthy for a Hawke who wants more than sex to stick around and wait for Isabela to change. In fact, it's self-detrimental, which is kind of my point. But . . . . I never said that Isabela's romance was healthy, just that it was the healthiest of the game. Honestly, the fact that Hawke never dissolves into resentment and entitled anger shows that she really loved Isabela.
It's just . . . Hawke deserves to be loved in return.
It's not that Isabela doesn't love Hawke. In fact, there are little hints in each special scene that she does. After her first sex scene, Hawke can confront her about wanting a real relationship. Isabela will walk away from the conversation looking very worried and sad, though this isn't something Hawke can see, as Isabela's back is to her.
You can give Isabela a Rivani necklace in Act 3, and Isabela will point out that Rivani women wore such necklaces when they wanted love. Hawke didn't know what the necklace meant and can be played up as apologetic and embarrassed . . . but Isabela will automatically equip the necklace without the player having to do so, giving the audience a huge hint.
Also, if you leave Isabela for Merrill, you get the following banter:
Isabela: You and Hawke . . . there's something there, isn't there?
Merrill: Hawke is so beautiful and amazing. How could anyone not love her?
Isabela: How could they not?
That's not the entire banter, but Isabela doesn't sound spiteful and bitter at all. After dropping a hint that she also loves Hawke, she says she is happy for Merrill, who has been alone too long. Her sisterly relationship with Merrill is a direct inversion of Morrigan and Leliana, who could get into a cat fight over the Warden. In direct contrast, Isabela and Merrill are happy for each other if one of them gets to be with Hawke.
Also, this banter serves to show that Isabela actually does love Hawke and perhaps she did for years and just hid it. You get this banter in Act 2, after all, after beginning Merrill's romance and shortly after leaving Isabela.
Basically, I think all the romancable followers really do love Hawke, even Isabela. The problem is, Isabela keeps it to herself and Hawke doesn't actually know it until Act 3. This is a problem because I like going by what my character knows and not what I know (aka roleplaying). So if Hawke isn't aware that Isabela actually loves her, of course she'll move on. But if Hawke just wants casual fun time, she'll always stay with Isabela (and most of my Hawkes want love).
Let me just pause here to say how happy I was and am to finally get two women to choose from instead of just one. I loved Leliana well enough, but only having her for an option sucked back in Origins (and only having Liara sucked in Mass Effect). In Dragon Age 2, I get to choose between two fun and interesting yet somewhat dramatic romances, and what's more, the women sigh over me after I've been with them both? Awesome.
I don't think I ever experienced that kind of fan service for my demographic in a video game before Dragon Age 2. Bioware games aren't perfect, but I can see them making more and more money off their "minority" audience in the future. If only they would go back to making actual rpgs and not Skyrim imitations. . . . Oh, and if only they would stop f*cking up their own lore (the asari were always mono-gendered women, Bioware. Just stop).
Okay. Back to Isabela.
Later, when Hawke's mother dies, Isabela will come to comfort her. If Hawke says that her mother was all she had left, Isabela makes a fumbling attempt to let Hawke know that she cares. There's a moment when she almost says that she loves Hawke . . . only to chicken out and say that people like Aveline care about her.
Hawke doesn't see this because her head is bowed and she isn't looking at Isabela. Again, this is something only the audience notices. So from Hawke's perspective, Isabela doesn't really care about her in the way that she needs.
I realize some players might roleplay a Hawke who only wants casual s*x and doesn't care about romance, but I imagine my Hawke has a sh*tty enough life without waiting six years for someone they care about to openly return their affections.
My Hawke deserves a loving, committed relationship, and Merrill is willing to give that. Isabela, however, takes some time to climb that mountain (no pun intended) which kind of isn't fair to a Hawke who actually wants a relationship.
Why should they wait around six years for her to change her mind? If you think about it, that's really asking a lot.
So my Hawke is going to go for a committed relationship with Merrill, where she will be loved and respected and cared for. Merrill really is a great lover, who always stands by Hawke, supports her, comforts her.
And sure, the elves look bad in Dragon Age 2 . . . but that's what mods are for.