Say what you will about the dodgy character work of Until Dawn, but the game has succeeded in one thing: it gave us a genuinely unsympathetic, unlikeable female character. Emily is almost universally disliked from the reactions I’ve seen outside my own friend group, with bloggers confessing they made certain decisions to deliberately put her at a disadvantage, playthrough-makers announcing they don’t really care if she dies and that they’d rather focus on saving her trodden-down boyfriend Matt, whom she’s horrible to, and everyone—including me, I regret to say—calling her a bitch at least once.
Listen, though: Emily is a bitch. She is basically packaged to be what society defines that as: she’s angry, petty, domineering, manipulative and self-serving, and is a vain young woman to top it off. Compared to other female characters in the game like the heroic Sam and the emotive, submissive (comparatively, anyway) Ashley, there’s very little incentive for the player to warm up to her. It’s Until Dawn’s lack of character depth and development, obviously, which leaves her only as the archetypal Bitch™ with no more layers to her (aside from a cryptic mention from Dr Hill that “an abundance in confidence can often mask a lack in confidence”) and contributes to so much hate and name-calling. But it could also be that nothing about Emily’s stubbornness, assertive attitude or anger is packaged in a way that’s appealing. There’s nothing cute about her anger, nothing about it that’s moulded into an attractive archetype… she’s just a terrible person. And I love that about her.
I got thinking about this after seeing a post pointing out that perhaps there wouldn’t have been so much (male) backlash against the Ghostbusters reboot if the leading ladies had been more ‘appealing’. Holtzmann, for example, isn’t a quirky smart girl with fashionably frizzy Manic Pixie hair, she’s a full-blown mad scientist who acts weird and passionate and off-the-wall in ways that don’t cater to any sort of nerd girlfriend archetype (who was quite probably written as a lesbian, to boot). All the Ghostbusters are just written and presented as ordinary women, who wear slouchy, practical jumpsuits, do science, and eat pizza. Maybe there wouldn’t have been such an uproar if they’d been designed as more of a fantasy-fulfilment, and indeed maybe Emily would have been more liked if she’d been given more of a cute factor.
Because angry girls can be cute—hell, it’s practically a whole genre. I’m aware that I’m mixing my mediums and genres here, but purely hypothetically, if Emily had been packaged as more of a tsundere type, maybe there she’d be more liked. Angry girls have a certain appeal, the same way that assertive girls have a certain appeal, in a “step on me, my queen” sort of way. It’s this princess-worship and tsundere-adoration that gives you the bare bones of a character like Rin, who, though I know I’ve done my fair share of complaining, I will certainly admit is miles deeper than anything Until Dawn could conjure up. Rin is an angry girl though, but she’s unmistakably appealing in it. To a certain niche crowd, of course, but it doesn’t change the fact that the way her inherent awfulness is portrayed, in comparison with Emily’s for example, creates an entirely different dynamic.
Let me reiterate: Rin is awful. She can be, anyway—her awfulness stems from deeply-rooted emotional issues that simultaneously forced her to mature super quickly and stranded her developmentally at age seven. She has a very childish way of handling emotions she isn’t comfortable with, which is one of the reasons she enters Tsun Mode: she lashes out, she denies any feelings she isn’t in total control of, and she scrambles to regain control over the situation by acting superior, often to the point of ordering other characters around and treating them like crap. This bundle of flaws and contradictions makes for an interesting character, but it really isn’t healthy, and seems like something she should logically be growing out of as she develops across the story. She never really does, though, which is especially a problem in the 2014 anime: she stays still, and she stays mad.
Why? Well, here’s a hypothesis, from my minimal knowledge of anime marketing: because her anger is a selling point. Her hot-and-cold attitude is something fanboys apparently love, at least I can assume so from the prevalence of the archetype. Rin’s anger typically manifests in endearing, weirdly infantilised ways like blushy tantrums and ‘harmless’ violence that’s parcelled as slapstick, and even though the game’s internal narration notes how awful this behaviour is the story overall rarely ever calls it out. And again, the anime turned her temper on and off like a tap, occasionally defanging her with reminders of her past tragedy and helplessness… which ultimately made the aggressiveness that inevitably came after it feel a lot less weighty than it should. So she’s sweet, really. Even when she’s bullying you.
Apart from that hint that she’s secretly really insecure (apparently), Emily, it’s worth noting, doesn’t have a ‘dere’ side to her ‘tsun’, so it’s not an entirely fair comparison. But I can’t help but notice that very little about the way Emily is portrayed matches up with characters like Rin who are clearly meant to be fiery in an appealing way: she’s not cute, she’s not slapstick, she’s not infantilised, as far as we know she’s not like this because of some childhood trauma, and she’s not acting out because she’s embarrassed by a boy. She will swear at you, order you around without mercy, and leave you to die if you cross her.
And her assertiveness isn’t framed as appealing either—you know that leather-clad badass lady villain archetype that’s kind of meant to be Empowering but is really mostly so the male audience can drool over a dominatrix? That isn’t her either. Though her actress is good-looking and she’s fashionably dressed, nothing about her deliberately oozes sex appeal. She’s just nasty, you guys. She’s just a bitch. And, unlike Rin, the narrative and the characters point this out, so it’s clearly actually framed as a bad thing and not a moe point.
I don’t think we’re used to seeing female characters like that, whether it’s a matter of geek market approval and fantasy fulfilment or not—women are generally taught to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, and though we’re expected to be more emotional than men, we’re generally also expected to be fragile and soft in the expression of those emotions. A woman who is roaring with unapologetic anger and is domineering and selfish, in conflict with the usual societal ideal of the compassionate, docile giver, is in direct opposition to such an idea. Such a thing is so confronting and wrong that of course the ‘bitch’ slurs come out.
It’s kind of disheartening to see, from both men and women playing, when people write her off as a Bitch and say they don’t care if she survives to the end of the game or not. This is really problematic as a worldview, for one thing, but also… do you know how boring the game would be if the girls in the cast were all lovely? Emily is antagonistic, and she’s interesting. She creates a spectrum (with charming Sam at the other end) that adds colour and vigour and new dynamics to the story.
Once I got past my initial “you are everyone I ever avoided in high school” horror, I actually really liked Emily. She’s a bitch, yes, and that’s what’s great about her! It’s refreshing to see female characters that are unabashedly nasty without writers (or executives) feeling the need to weigh her with a super tragic sympathetic backstory or framing her nastiness in endearing ways, be they adorable tsundere anger or an element of sexiness to her domineering attitude. Emily is not here for you. Emily is here for herself, and would probably leave you dead on the side of a mountain if it meant she’d benefit. There’s nothing cute about that, and instead of lashing out, maybe we should accept that that’s okay once in a while.