Casting light on gender in Dark Souls

Women's corruption and bondage

Dark Souls, the hit videogame series celebrated for its complex narrative interplay between light and dark, grapples with the unexpected theme of gender representation. While the game thrives on disrupting conventional storytelling, its depiction of women remains tethered to a conventional binary. The very nature of Dark Souls' dichotomies makes it impossible to escape the gender binary writes Benjamin Carpenter.


It is an uncontroversial point (in so far as there are any) to consider Dark Souls as premising much of its narrative drive on the polarity between light and dark. Though originally introduced to these metaphysical concepts as an antagonistic binary, there are many points throughout the fragmented narrative of the games that calls this binary into question. A staple of its distinct narrative style, Dark Souls is no stranger to the persistent disruption of the stories that it chooses to reveal — whether these disruptions are about questioning the fundamental nature of the world as we experience it, doubting that our character is truly the prophesied figure of divinely mandated destiny, or instilling a suspicion of the motives of other characters as they presented. Disruption as the motivation to question, to doubt, to regard with suspicion, is a pervasive and inextricable part of Souls’ storytelling, and the dualistic metaphysics of light and dark are no exception to this. And yet, when we consider the question(s) of gender with regard to the series, we are immediately met with a vision of gender that almost without exception repeats and reinforces the traditional binary of man and woman. As is to be expected, the work the series does to maintain this binary and thereby the salience of gender to its story is often done through stylistic moves that mobilise various kinds of norm that play into the conceptual structures of misogyny, sexism, and homophobia (though this is not an exhaustive list).


Souls presents a vision of woman that ignores the sex/gender distinction so widely discussed within feminist theory.


Given the numerous ways in which the series replays symbolic associations between darkness and evil, the figure of the woman within Souls is maintained in the position of the other — specifically the other as a threat. Just as the opening cutseen instils us with a fear that the dark might win out over the light — for “soon the flames will fade and only Dark will remain. Even now there are only embers, and man sees not light, but only endless nights”— the game gives us a parade of female figures that are to be feared for the corruption with which they are so frequently equated. And we shall see the precise kinds of violation and violence that the fear of women is seen to justify within the narrative.

Corruption — Essentially Women, Essentially Dark
Dark Souls presents a binarist conception of sex and gender. Much like most other RPGs, we begin each game with character creation and are at once faced with the decision: male or female? This is such a common experience within videogames that the process of character creation passes us by without this binary being altogether conspicuous. A game is far more likely to be noteworthy for its inclusion of non-binary or non-cis* characters than it is for repeating gender binaries. Yet gender is far from the only binary within Souls (though it is arguable the most stable of them) for the foundational metaphysics of the world rest on the interplay between a binary of light and dark.

The world of Dark Souls is dominated by the interplay between light and dark, particularly between the desire to preserve a world that is illuminated by the divine light of the fire flame and the fear of a world that altogether lacks this. The narrative we often experience is either that of the Great Lord Gwyn — who gave his life to ensure that the Age of Fire and the power of the Gods would persist (not that it worked out) — or a response to Gwyn’s story. Indeed, this is the frame given to us by the diaspora between Frampt and Kaathe. As Gwyn’s story holds so much influence over the world of Dark Souls (he is, after all, synonymous with ‘God’), we are presented with a world that takes the light/dark binary as its foundation and then extends this into numerous other binary distinctions, such as good/evil, life/death, and importantly divine/human.


Womanhood becomes a determining mark for those characters that bear it.


The man/woman binary is yet another framing of antagonistic opposites that fits comfortably into this structure, and it is of little surprise that women are associated with the dark. Souls aligns humanity itself with darkness, for the metaphysical essence of humanity within the game is a literal fragment of the titular dark soul, the very essence of the dark itself. Just as light and dark find themselves collapsed into metaphysical essences, gender is treated as a fixed and essential binary. This is achieved through an uncritical use of biological essentialism — the understanding that gender is strictly a matter of simplified biology. Souls presents a vision of woman that ignores the sex/gender distinction so widely discussed within feminist theory. Broadly speaking, this distinction speaks of gender in terms of sociology — as the roles, expectations, and permissible performances that are assigned to individuals on the basis of their (perceived) biological sex. The distinction then speaks of sex as a matter of how one’s physical body is categorised based upon its biological make up, its primary and secondary sex characteristics. Much contemporary feminist theory considers the interplay between these distinguished categories, though maintains that neither can ever be comprehensively collapsed into the other — as has been the historical norm throughout history and remains commonplace within everyday parlance. That Dark Souls is manifestly in the dark when it comes to this distinction (feminist theory is perhaps not as widely read in some circles as would be preferably) leads to its presentation of gender as sex and sex as gender. The two become united into one and in so doing produce its female characters as those who bear a distinct kind of feminine essence. As such, the female body itself becomes a site of narrative focus — and that it is almost exclusively seen as an explicitly female body that is engaged it feminised behaviours leaves the gender binary unquestioned. Womanhood becomes a determining mark for those characters that bear it.

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Souls thereby marks its female characters as particular — their experiences are overtly gendered in ways that male characters rarely are. This manifests in the narrative treatment of women, for a majority of female characters are embroiled in stories that pivot around their womanhood — their gender is made conspicuous and given primacy by their narrative such that their stories are told explicitly as the stories of women. This is to say that their gender is consistently reasserted as the central and inescapable feature of these characters. Within Souls, the stories of women are definitively women’s narratives, rather than simply narratives involving women.

Furthermore, Souls maintains femininity as a form of otherness, for the centrality of womanhood is only ever maintained in the narratives of other characters. Despite the possibility of playing a female character, the game’s fundamental attitude to the player does not shift based upon this choice. Far from being an indication that femininity does not always constitute a determining force for female characters, the player’s immunity from the determining force of womanhood is an indication that this womanhood is always conceptualised as belonging to somebody else. A female player character constitutes a notable exception to the usual rules of gendering within Souls, precisely because there is such a disparity between how the gender of the player, and the gender of other female characters are treated. The glaring nature of this disparity, the absence of all bur superficial gendering for the female player character, only serves to make clearer the gendered nature of Dark Souls’ non-player characters. Whereas our female character moves through the world unimpeded by any such gendered mark, she is alone in this.

Through so premising the existence of its female characters upon this essentialised femininity/womanhood, the narrative homogenises its female cast in such a way as to collapse its gender binary into the binary of light and dark.


if sorcery is definitively male, dark magic is definitively female.


Women within Souls are perpetually associated with darkness — frequently serving as its embodiments, avatars, and vessels. Through this association, Souls maintains an ancient (yet no less misogynistic) affinity between women and irrationality — a trait which reads into the behaviour of women a deficiency of capacity, which renders them dangerous and destructive. This plays into an older (and yet culturally pervasive) mapping of the man/woman binary onto the binaries of reason/emotion and mind/body — which serve to reduce women to narrow conceptions of female biology, and to account for the presupposed lack of rational capacity in terms of their bodily functions. It is this mapping of womanhood and irrationality that fuels sexist jokes about menstruation, and has even been used as post-facto justifications for acts of sexual assault and coercive rape — the ‘argument’ effectively being that women simply lack the agency to meaningfully consent. Interestingly, Bloodborne, due to its heavy interest in themes of birth and motherhood, plays more directly with these, and the narrative is laced with both explicit and implicit references to pregnancy and menstruation.

This equation between womanhood and the irrational corruption of ‘pure’ masculine reason is further reflected in the various forms of magic within Souls. Across the series, there are four kinds of magic: sorcery, miracles, and the ‘dark magic’ of hexes (although these are not strictly distinct from either sorcery or miracles in terms of their mechanics). Sorcery is directly linked to intellect and is a practice of rigorous study motivated by “an unquenchable desire for the truth”. With one exception, all the sorcery trainers within the games are men, and the dragon Seathe (something of a father figure for sorcery) uses women as test subjects, transforming them into ‘monstrosities’. Importantly, this exception — Princess Dusk— teaches us illusion magic, which is to say magic that conceals, manipulates and distorts the truth. Illusion magic is highly gendered within Souls, and that the only female teacher of sorcery is associated with manipulating and bending the truth — especially in a discipline defined by “an unsound fixation” with progress — is yet another instance of womanhood’s incompatibility with the project of sorcery. It seems that for Souls, for women are simply too drawn to irrationality.

Those few female sorcerers we do encounter throughout the game often bear the gendered moniker of ‘Witch’ and their magic is viewed as distinct from that of men. This begins with Demon’s Souls, within which Sage Freke (the game’s master of sorcery) takes interested in Yuria the Witch precisely because her magic is defined by her gender, and it is notable that the kind of magic Yuria teaches us is considered ‘dark’. She describes her “witchcraft” as “of a dark nature” that “arouses suspicions”, as a “dark, dependant art” and as a “black craft” that is “intrinsically evil”. So, if sorcery is definitively male, dark magic is definitively female.


The image of the female body, broken and bound beneath the fire establishes the relationship between the keeper and her flame.


Souls is awash with images of female bodies that are constrained, imprisoned, sealed-away, and bound.
The central hub of Dark Souls literally rests atop a notable and macabre feature. As we descend the winding steps around the side of Firelink shrine, we see a woman sealed into the very stone by a set of iron bars. She is unresponsive if we attempt to speak to her, and this is revealed to be the result of a mutilation of her “impure tongue” — “so that she’d never say any god’s name in vain”. Not only is her tongue removed, but her clothing hints that she has been maimed so as to prevent her escape. As we later learn, this is Anastacia of Astora, the Fire Keeper bound to the bonfire around which this shrine is focused. It is fitting that she is both the first Fire Keeper we meet, and that her station is portrayed through the literal bondage of imprisonment. The Firelink Shrine of Dark Souls forms a central image that has become a somewhat iconic representation of the game itself — not only because it constitutes as safe a space as can be found within a Souls game, but also because it’s a space that bears a great amount of narrative weight (with the veritable parade of characters that pass through it). Whereas the other Fire Keepers encountered throughout the games have this bondage portrayed in a more symbolic manner, Anastacia is interred, literally buried beneath the flame she is supposed to nurture.

The image of the female body, broken and bound beneath the fire establishes the relationship between the keeper and her flame. Fire Keepers are described as “a corporeal manifestation of her bonfire”, as the women themselves are nothing beyond their relationship to the flames. Though they nurture and tend to the fire — which we have noted paints them in a maternal light — their relationship is altogether one of subservience wherein they become absolutely instrumentalised into the service of the flame and those that seek to preserve it. The justification for Anastacia’s treatment is not only that she may be tempted to sin against the Gods — the very faction that are almost unanimously aligned with the flame — but also because it is her life that sustains Firelink Shrine’s bonfire. Upon her death at the hands of Knight Lautrec, the bonfire is extinguished for it is robbed of its source of sustenance: her soul. As such, what is valued about Anastacia as a Fire Keeper is that her own life gives life to the fire, and those that seek to preserve flame see this as justification enough to violate both her autonomy and her body in order to ensure that she cannot elude this role.

The institutionalised creation of Fire Keepers practices a ritualised oedipism, wherein those women who seek the ‘esteem’ of the Fire Keeper’s lot must be mutilated before they can serve this purpose. Of course, we know precisely why Fire Keepers must be blinded — for should we decide to give these eyes to our own Fire Keeper, it enables us to turn her away from her duty and achieve an ending to our story that is defined as the betrayal of fire. It is no coincidence that in one variation of this ending, our player can brutally murder our Fire Keeper, and this act becomes an almost banal continuation of the routine violation endured by these women. After all — Fire Keepers are subservient — their own agency has already been forfeited in the name of their duty. What this ending further reveals is our own Fire Keeper’s total lack of agency even in the selection and actualisation of her own vows, for though she encourages you to fulfil your duty and rekindle the flame (which is her literal reason for being) should you ask her to betray this she does not resist. Again, this simply solidifies the role of the Fire Keeper as one who serves — whose agency is denied through their very station.

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But Fire Keepers are not the only instances of female bondage within Souls. The descent down the steps of Firelink Shrine to discover Anastacia in Dark Souls mirrors the descent into the cage atop the Grand Archives of Dark Souls III, where we find the husked corpse of Gertrude. The mirroring of Anastacia and Gertrude’s stories is further manifest in the physical mutilation they face as a response to their perceived blasphemy — as Gertrude’s imprisonment comes as a response to her preaching of angelic heresies. Gertrude lost “both her sight and voice” indicating a continuity with the eyeless Fire Keepers and the tongueless Anastacia. In both cases, the female body is violated and broken in order to force its comportment to a particular political and religious ideology. The violence is an attempt to hobble the dark and retain the purity of the light.

These images of female bondage constitute a persistent schematic within Souls that portrays these many forms of violation as a direct consequence of the essential womanhood inscribed onto female characters within the game and the symbolic association of this womanhood with a malignant, corrupting darkness. Fire Keepers are useful because of their affinity for the corrupting dark — but it is for this reason that the violence committed against them is immediately regarded as justifiable and necessary. Gertrude ‘earns’ her violent treatment by her heresy. Rosaria is sealed away for her corrupting influence and then slain in the name of her own good. It is the very mark of womanhood that ‘earns’ women their mistreatment.

As we have seen, Souls mobilises a form of womanhood to create a stable form of gendered essence. This essential womanhood is attributed to the female characters that move within the game space, serving to delineate the kinds of movement that the narrative permits to them. Through so binding the kinds of movement its female characters can undergo to this essentialised gender we see the stories of women within Souls as definitively female stories that partake in a host of gendering tropes. This finds its most consistent expression in the constant equation of the man/woman binary onto the foundational binary of light/dark that underpins the entire series. As such, the women of Souls are seen as representatives of the corrupting dark — an association that becomes a justification for the routine violence and violation they endure throughout the series. And yet, this closed system of absolute definition, of roles that cannot be escaped or denied is exposed as a fake — as a mirage that not only requires Godlike power to sustain, but comes at such a great cost. And nowhere is this cost so fully felt that by those characters who are seen to bear this essence of womanhood.


For a more in-depth analysis of Dark Souls find more on Corruption and Bondage here:



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