Before I was derailed a bit (if you can call it that) by my contribution to the Round Table and others, I spent some time talking about archetypes, specifically the difference between two similar female archetypes: the healer and the warrior princess.
At the end of the post, I posed the question of why these archetypes recur so often, and why they're so powerful. Natalie, in the comments, said something very interesting:
When it comes to Heinlein, I can't help but feel like... his (dirty old man) status does taint the validity of his ideas. But here's the thing: he nevertheless makes me wish the world worked the way he proposes.
I think this captures a fundamental appeal of fictional storytelling, but right now, I'm a bit more interested (inspired a bit by Corvus's mention of a more in-depth discussion on gender in games) in the nature of strength as it relates to gender, which I think also keys into the appeal of these archetypes quite nicely.
Everybody in western culture is familiar with the pinnacle of male strength, the action hero. They're physically strong, they're agile, they're smart, they're witty, they're resourceful, and more than anything else they can go the distance. Maybe they don't believe it at the start, but every action hero must believe, before they defeat the final villian, that they can.
I'm reminded of the Lord of the Rings:
"I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness, but I know I can't turn back... I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me."
Must of that book is about whether or not Frodo is, in fact, willing to go the distance.
All of the tenets of the typical male hero, I believe, revolve around this issue. In the case of the action hero (which is most often analagous to the main character of a video game), all of the secondary traits (which are still part of the whole picture, mind you) serve to reinforce the action hero's ability to overcome the obstacle set before him. The idea of "It is within my power to overcome this obstacle, and I will do everything within my power to do so" is the message behind action heroes that resonates with the audience so well, and the more the action hero has to sacrifice, the more notable his journey is.
We see very few female action heroes, and almost as few female main characters in games. When we do, the female aspect usually feels utterly superfluous, and is added for the purpose of throwing sex-appeal into a film that's already going to attract a primarily male audience.
Why do we see so few decent female characters in these roles? The two most common reasons, which are both very true, are: the movies/games themselves primarily appeal to men, and the people making the movies/games themselves are primarily men.
And yet, there are more and more people, as evidenced by the resounding positive feedback that Corvus recieved, who are finding this unsatisfactory. The problem isn't the strength of the male characters, the problem is the dearth of strong female characters.
Paul Wells on Miyazaki (pulled from Andrew Osmond's Foundation article "Nausicaa and the Fantasy of Hayao Miyazaki", which can be found here):
"Miyazaki establishes authorial tendencies by refuting the tenets of films constructed on masculine terms... (His) complex heroines are consistently engaged in the pursuit of self-knowledge and a distinctive identity. His use of the feminine discourse subverts patriarchal agendas both in film making and story-telling.
"As Miyazaki suggests, 'We've reached a time when the male-oriented way of thinking is reaching a limit. The girl or woman has more flexibility. This is why a female point of view fits the current times.'"
While a little more academic than I would have put it, that really hits the nail on the head. There will always be a place for the action hero, but the hill of the digital world is getting big enough for both of those hombres, I think. So if action hero is the male ideal of strength, what's the female?