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"Dragon Age 2" (2011): Isabela, A Character Analysis

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Lee has been playing "Dragon Age" since the first game's release. She enjoys exploring and explaining the characters and the lore.

Isabela aka "Niashe."

Isabela aka "Niashe."

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.

Here's why.

She's Literally a Walking Gag

Isabela with breasts and butt hanging out for all to see.

Isabela with breasts and butt hanging out for all to see.

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.

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Isabela goes through Hawke's mail.

Isabela goes through Hawke's mail.

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.

Isabela and her giant boobs.

Isabela and her giant 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

Isabela in "Inquisition's" multiplayer.

Isabela in "Inquisition's" multiplayer.

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,

"Pirate!"

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.

Isabela in the comic "Those Who Speak."

Isabela in the comic "Those Who Speak."

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

Charles Gunn from Angel.

Charles Gunn from Angel.

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.

Isabela gets beaten in "The Silent Grove"  #5, on the cover of which she was white-washed.

Isabela gets beaten in "The Silent Grove" #5, on the cover of which she was white-washed.