M-AM Mini: The Women of Resident Evil

From Ashley Graham to Mia Winters 

This article is an expansion of previous thoughts I expressed on SingingBrakeman’s Resident Evil Franchise Festival, an amazing and wholly thorough article that I recommend for greater knowledge on the background of this series and for reading both my original comments and those of Shinigami Apple Merchant, whose own thoughts also contributed to this piece.

This series cites all sources for quotes and imagery used for factual, demonstrative, and transformative purposes, and these sources will be linked throughout. Please consider supporting MobyGames as their staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Credit for all images goes to Capcom. Credit for the header image goes to Capcom and Nintendo.


When playing through a watercooler event of a game like Shinji Mikami’s Resident Evil 4, it’s easy to be tempted to discuss what one knows has been discussed so many times before. From thrilling boss fights like El Gigante and Father Mendez to being stalked by invisible bug monsters in the sewers, which truly scared me out of my wits, this game is full of so many memorable sequences it could be easy to think that one’s personal experience with these perennially familiar moments is notable enough on its own. However, I have decided against this. For thoughtful discussions on the gameplay and design of this game, I recommend such excellent sources as our own Wolfman’s article over at SourceGaming, etc. etc. Instead, we’ll be exploring Resident Evil 4 in conjunction with this franchise’s most recent and equally radical overhaul, 2017’s Resident Evil 7, through the framework of the roles and narratives of the women central to each of these games.

Both of these games have thematically overlapping starting premises: Leon Kennedy must explore the Spanish countryside to rescue an abducted young woman, specifically the President’s1 while Ethan must explore a Louisiana plantation to rescue his abducted wife; both games feature interstitial sequences where these damsels in distress, these objects of motivation, are playable. Beyond those basic facts, these woman have very different roles within their respective games and narratives, and each experiences different limitations within their writing and presentation.

For the sake of brevity and our collective sanity, I will not be extensively discussing either the public resentments towards Ashley as yet another (“whiny”) escort mission of that design era, or the extremely uncomfortable and unnecessary sexualization of her both inside, (her invitation to Leon in the ending) and outside the game. Background material may establish her as 20 years old, but that doesn’t matter in the face of the overall infantilizing presentation of her character. Suffice to say, as a young woman myself, it was not easy to find pictures of her that I was happy to use for this article.

The sensations of challenge and survival as a design ethos for Resident Evil 4 is apparent throughout, from the hard choices that have to be made about what can take up your limited storage space, to conserving/scrounging ammo and other resources as is classic to this game genre, and yes, the imposed need to not only protect and heal Leon but Ashley as well. As underlined above by Anita Sarkeesian, patterns had emerged in design of support and escort characters where developers had struggled to elevate them beyond  a dichotomy of burden and cheerleader, and those patterns have disproportionately affected female characters due to factors both practical and cultural.

When Ashley is isolated from Leon in playable segments such as in Chapter 3-4, she gains some greater agency, not only sneaking and dodging around enemies, but also attacking some types by throwing oil lanterns that set them ablaze. In the far greater number of segments where the two are together, however, Ashley gains even greater learned helplessness, hiding or boosting her guardian over doors only on his orders, with no opportunities to assert herself beyond the occasional toothless rejoinder in a cutscene. Despite a gradually developing rapport between her and Leon, the relationship remains decidedly imbalanced, with none of the opportunities to expand her gameplay facets taken that could have at least slightly evened out her limited characterization.

Credit: IGN

There is no shortage of distractions from the narrative’s urgency, from extra treasures to hunt for like the blue medals, to the shooting gallery inside the castle. With these diversions already in place, there’s no reason they couldn’t include opportunities to further flesh out Ashley’s character and her dynamic with Leon; it’s not difficult to imagine a sequence2 where he teaches her some rudimentary gunplay at the shooting range and this is incorporated into the escort sequences, allowing Ashley’s character to grow and the gameplay to dynamically develop.

But no, it seems that the vision for Ashley aimed exactly for where it landed with all these limitations, with no dreaming of going further, and without question of why she couldn’t be brought a little closer to full playable characters of earlier in the series like Jill Valentine in Shinji Mikami’s original game, Claire Redfield in Resident Evil 2, and even the more ambiguous Ada Wong in both that game and RE4 itself. Even as Resident Evil 4 otherwise fulfills the potential of its on and its broader series’ ambitions with aplomb, it lets down the reasonable expectation of living up to the benchmark for women in games the series had established up to this point.

Credit: MobyGames

The legacy of Jill, Claire, and Ada is far from unblemished. Developers throughout this series’ history have consistently undermined its cast of heroines, both through continual redesigns that further emphasize sexiness in their characters3 and the implementation of even more revealing and objectifying alternate costumes meant as rewards to be earned by players. A few years ago, Shinji Mikami, who left the franchise after RE4, proclaimed that he is against “obvious eroticism” in physical design and in favor of independence over submission in women’s characterization in games, pointing to Rebecca Chambers of his original game and Resident Evil Zero as a disappointment that he holds other staff members responsible for. I wonder whether he would defend against these concerns about Ashley’s character or similarly pin the blame on his coworkers. I’m not certain with any judgments on Mikami’s character given the information available to us, but that only makes the disappointment sting harsher.

Ashley lacks the agency or capability of her foremothers, and even the simple potential improvements within the rescue narrative as is are neglected. The backslide she represents for the series as a whole is notable, but how does it compare to a character that brings the series to far greater and more radical heights, but who is never allowed to fully cross the finish line of fulfilling her own potential and paying off what is already established within her story? Let’s consider Resident Evil 7: Biohazard.


Resident Evil 7‘s Ethan is somewhere between a throwback to something more like the traditional Silent Hill protagonist, being distinctly unqualified and out of his depths for the surroundings and experiences he faces, and almost a parody of cookie cutter player characters the games industry is rife with4 in his personality and design. These factors combined with the reactive dialogue that he frequently features do allow him to function well as the audience surrogate and complete outsider to the insanity that he delves into upon entering the Baker household. His original motivation of finding and saving his wife remains at the core of his actions even as circumstances repeatedly shift around him. As the first enemy he faces among many, Mia becomes a twisted inversion of the wife as motivational object, continuing to be a frightening threat and dynamically evolve as a character even as the opportunity to cure her finally comes into view. She has not only an undeniable agency, but in fact an active subversiveness to her character that both Ashley and most others in this series lack, which we will expand on further soon.

Credit: MobyGames

The tragicomic psychosis of the Baker family render them the flashiest stars of the show, and voice in the ear Zoe quickly settles into a similar reassuring supportive role as the characters discussed in the Tropes vs Women video, but it’s Mia that quickly proves to be the surprising emotional core of the game’s narrative, particularly in the polarizing final stretch. It quickly becomes apparent that her presence on the Baker property is no mere babysitting job, and the tensions between seeing humanity gradually reemerge within Mia, the dangers she continues to pose, and the desire to fully understand her background, are balanced well. The effective stop of the game’s initial story, the story of Ethan, is when Ethan defeats the massive final incarnation of family patriarch Jack and can only cure one of the two women in his company, in what can only land as a simultaneous pandering to and brutal mockery of a presumed juvenile male audience, where Ethan’s narrative arc can either be fulfilled or compromised on the basis that the cheerleader Zoe is preferable to Ethan’s own wife.

Operating on the basis that the player does in fact make the correct choice and fulfilled Ethan’s driving motivation of saving his wife,5 it’s organic for the game to then transition into Mia’s point of view in order to fully unravel the mysteries wrapped up in her, and resolve her own arc. Outside of the flashback sequence that takes up much of Mia’s time as a playable character, Ethan is even positioned in a far more straightforward rendition of a damsel/rescue figure than Mia ever occupied earlier in the game. It is deeply satisfying to finally delve into the psyche of dangerous mystery Mia, continue the journey we’ve been on with her, fully grasping her background and role in the game’s events, and in the process experience a further escalation of the player’s empowerment and game’s action without sacrificing tension.

Credit: MobyGames

A relatively distant aspect of the game comes to the forefront in a fast, but nonetheless organic and meaningful manner. We feel the secrets Mia lived with keeping from her husband, feel the danger she triumphantly endures as she tries and fails to contain Eveline’s power in the flashbacks, she’s an exciting, compelling and truly nuanced figure in a very wonderfully archetypal and campy series. She’s not just a modification of the wife as motivation, she’s also basically “What if an Umbrella agent were sympathetic”, which is a striking take for the series to jump into after 20 years, and it even effectively foreshadows Redfield’s role at the end as part of the broader soft reboot of the series’ lore. The game has become Mia’s story, and though it may seem rather sudden in the moment, it is a payoff to what has been seeded from the beginning and throughout, as outlined here. The conflict from the start was not only Ethan’s intent to save his wife but the mystery of her disappearance and her relationship to her ‘family’, culminating in the revelations of Eveline’s identity and control over the Bakers after seeing Mia’s relationship with Eveline. It’s only right that if Eveline is going to step forward as the active antagonist rather than the secret one, Mia should be the one to be her hero, her protagonist, her defeat.

Credit: MobyGames

And instead…Mia just passes the baton back to her husband after rescuing him with her super-agent action abilities. Her husband who has no arc left to resolve, having already cured Mia of the infection and taken her out of the Baker house, has less tangible training and skill than her, and has absolutely no personal stake in Eveline whatsoever. That’s where RE7 falls apart in its final act, not the further escalation into action and the loss of scares, (although the Eveline boss fight as it stands really does feature rather dull gameplay and poor monster design)1, it’s how it lets down the series’ most complex character for the sake of the same white guy we played at the beginning, just a dude who survived in the house for a few hours relative to his narratively centered, more dynamic, and more qualified wife, getting to be the hero at the end.

To quote Shinigami Apple Merchant in our conversation from several months ago:

Going through that house was about three things to me- survival, bonding with who Mia was and what happened to her, and experiencing the insanity of the Bakers wreaked upon them by Umbrella. After that, just as you say, Mia taking over for the remainder of the game makes brilliant thematic sense. SHE is the connection between basic survival and restitution/atonement. She was a part of what let this all transpire and now she has a chance to end it. Heck, imagine an Eveline fight that even avoids bloodshed altogether. That’s all about tension and suspense and palpable sorrow. That subverts the final boss trope because real people lost their whole lives needlessly here, and this violence and horror HAS to stop. It’s a shame RE7 drops the solid complexity and depth it established for the majority of its runtime for that final leg. Still a great title. But a shame.”

Resident Evil 7 not only fails Mia in the full potential of her own character arc, but the broader narrative and thematic payoffs of the game as a whole, letting down the magnificent past 90 or 95% of the game, and the same legacy of heroines within the larger series, just as Ashley before her, but in an even more striking, dissatisfying way.

There are ways in which the various shifts in the game’s final stretch serve a purpose within the larger series and even the survival horror genre of gaming as a whole, as discussed both here and in the video below. There are also ways in which I understand how and why Ashley turned out the way she did that I don’t necessarily begrudge. Neither of those things counteract the protracted, broader patterns of neglect towards women in gaming industry and gaming culture that continue to only improve within fairly limited confines and isolated fits and starts. There is so much room for growth in representation of women across culture, and the failures of a work, a whole series, that has contributed positively to that growth, are sometimes the most necessary to discuss.


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Thank you to Dramus18, Singing Brakeman, DW, and Prestidigitis for your financial support of this project. Thank you everyone for your reading, your encouragement, your time, and your patience with the continued delays in my writing. Expect to see more articles up this month as I try to finish the various articles I’ve been in the middle of these past couple months!