I knew, long before The Old Republic was actually released, that my first character would be a female Smuggler. The Smuggler part was obvious; the rough-and-tumble, roguish classes have always appealed to me. And compared to the pseudo-magical background of the Jedi, all I needed was a trusty blaster and a handsomely-aged ship.
The "female" modifier, though – well, I’ll be the first to admit that was a gendered choice, insofar as gender had everything to do with it. In my mind, pretty much the only thing sexier than Han Solo is a female Han Solo. I won’t argue that a female character who can outdrink, outshoot, and outfly everyone else in the cantina is inherently strong – the whole “ideal” of the "strong female character" is really problematic – but I will admit that "independent and sassy female" is a trope that appeals to me. In short: this is my escapist fantasy, worrying sexist overtones be damned.
And The Old Republic delivered. My Single Female Smuggler stumbled from galactic cantina to galactic cantina, doing exactly what I wanted her to do – killing a bounty hunter here, saving a Wookie there. And, of course, there was the flirting, because what smuggling experience would be complete without an undertone of charming, flirtatious sexuality? Granted, I’d only been able to flirt with a handful people out of the hundreds I had encountered – my designated romance option, the snake that stole my ship, a card shark, a pansy aristocrat – but that hardly mattered. "My smuggler has standards," I told myself. "I probably wouldn’t have flirted anyway."
Eventually, I decided to make a male smuggler. This had nothing to do with my Single Female Smuggler, but everything to do with a female character: I’d bumped into a fun female companion that, thanks to Bioware’s choice to exclude homosexual options, I couldn’t romance. So Mr. Muttonchops was born. And it was the same roguish experience I had come to expect, with the same down-on-your-luck plot and the same cast of colorful characters. That is, with one important exception: I could flirt with everything.
Everything might be an overstatement; the NPC still had to have breasts to be eligible for a [Flirt] conversation option. But cops, Senators, planetary governors — I could flash a wink and make a sexually suggestive comment to each and every one of them. I hadn’t realized what I was missing with my female smuggler. "This," I said to myself, "this is what it means to be a smuggler in The Old Republic."
Being able to flirt my way across the galaxy seemed natural for a male smuggler, and for a precious, fleeting moment I appreciated that Bioware had coded a whole host of Smuggler-centric flirt options. It took me a while to realize the truth: every male player character, from the most upstanding Jedi to the most roguish smuggler, had the same flirt options.
Being able to flirt wasn’t what it meant to be a smuggler in The Old Republic; that’s what it meant to be male.
I’m not certain why Bioware chose to not include more flirt options for females, but the disparity is extremely stark. In her first twenty five levels, my female trooper had the opportunity to flirt with precisely two characters. On the other hand, my male smuggler – and, by extension, every male player character – has the option to flirt with at least that many female NPCs per planet.
This creates a strange and terrible storytelling imbalance that can only be described as sexist: female characters are explicitly disallowed from deploying their sexuality in the same way that their male counterparts can. Male characters can do what they want, when they want, with the women they want; women stay chaste and unflirtatious, automatically precluded by the game itself from any sort of lewd behavior with strangers.
And in those fleeting moments when a female character is allowed to flirt, it’s always with the exact same type of character: the sort of roguish, disarming character that would probably make a pass at them first – say, the trooper’s Nar Shaddaa contact Jonas Balkar, or the smuggler’s Coruscant acquaintance Darmas Pollaran. In effect, only obviously receptive males are "safe" to flirt with, ensuring that any female-instigated flirting is still at the discretion (and thereby tacitly allowed by, and controlled by) the male NPC.
I am not making the argument that Bioware has some sort of covert misogynistic agenda. But somewhere in the years leading up to The Old Republic‘s release, someone made a conscious choice to create male flirt options and to not create corresponding female flirt options. Or worse, maybe there wasn’t a conscious choice. Maybe this is just part-and-parcel of the same sort of reasoning that gave every female character in the game a D-cup, or that thought a sexualized female hologram made a great Collector’s Edition item: a game designed by men, for men, reflecting male wants and desires.