I’m really conflicted about the character of Grace in Wolfenstein. On the one hand, there’s lots of cool stuff about her character that’s really great and new. On the other, she sometimes feels a little forced. Also, holy hell, would it have killed you to introduce the Manhattan refugee camp with a couple shots establishing that there’s more than three people in the room? The whole time it’s just Grace and Spesh and BJ and the baby, and then the Nazis turn up and suddenly there’s fifty other refugees in the room. The fuck did they all come from?
Let’s start with the good stuff. Grace is a named black female character in video games – that’s exciting. Doesn’t happen very much. It’s nice to see. When you meet her, she’s also breastfeeding – again, very exciting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single breastfeeding scene in any video game ever. It was a first, and that’s exciting. Like the wheelchair scene, it’s a moment that I’ve never experienced in video games ever before. So thumbs up for that team. Grace also ends up becoming the leader of the resistance, which is cool, good, fine – named black woman and she also gets a leadership role, great. Ticks all down the board. I guess my problem is that even though there’s all these ticks, the character as a whole just never quite holds together for me.
There’s a scene in The Force Awakens where Finn and Rey meet. There’s some stormtroopers looking for them, and Finn grabs Rey’s hand and pulls her away – they’re going to tear off together and there’s going to be stormtroopers chasing them, it’s gonna be a whole thing. But Rey looks at Finn when he grabs her and goes “What are you doing?” indignantly. He starts running and half-dragging her, and she gets the message and starts running herself. And then they’re running, and it’s action, and there’s some more dialogue: Rey goes “Let go of me!” And Finn goes “Come on we gotta move!” And Rey goes “I know how to run without you holding my hand.” And it’s meant to be like a feminist moment, and Rey’s asserting her independence, and – I mean, on paper, fine. Not a bad idea. Little heavy handed, little clumsy, but okay, fine, you’re trying to convey good messages and just being a bit clumsy. That’s fine. It’s not amazing, but it’s fine. You’re on the right team. The artistry’s just a bit shit. And that’s kinda how I feel about Grace too. There’s some good stuff, and they’re moving in all the right directions, but the final product just feels a bit stale. It’s clumsy, and – for me, at least – a bit cringey.
The first issue for me is the dialogue. It feels like the writers were like ‘hey what do black people sound like? I guess they say motherfucker a lot.’ To me, it feels like relying on stereotypes. And I should disclaimer here – I’m not a black woman, and black women might have really different opinions on Grace’s depiction. There’s an hbomberguy video where he talks about Bill Nye’s Netflix series and his discussion of trans issues. He says that he personally didn’t think Nye’s discussion was necessarily very good, but then shows a clip of a trans Youtuber that he contacted saying yeah, she was actually quite happy with it all. There might be something similar going on here. Personally, Grace’s dialogue felt like it relied really heavily on stereotypes about black people. But I also don’t want to set myself up as chief arbiter of what black people in games should sound like, right, so I don’t want to get all up in arms about that point. That’s just my instinct.
Second issue, the monologue on balls. Grace and BJ are talking about Caroline, and BJ says something like “Yeah she had balls.” Grace then has a wee monologue about how it doesn’t make sense to say someone has balls to imply that they’re a badass, because balls are wrinkly and sensitive and tiny. BJ laughs and goes ‘yeah haha that’s dumb.’ And it’s all just a little cringey. It’s the Rey-hand-holding thing – like yes, there’s a legitimate political point to make, but from an artistic perspective it just seems really heavy handed and clumsy. I’m not convinced that it’s dealt with well.
Third issue, Caroline’s room. This is a little thing, but I think it contributes to an overall negative impression of Grace in, again, kind of a clumsy way. Grace turns up on the Eva’s Hammer with all her mates, and they all start looking for a place to sleep. Grace sees Caroline’s room (remember Caroline died) and goes oh, I’ll have that empty one. Nobody says anything about it, but it just creates this weird impression – it feels like Grace is running roughshod over Caroline’s memory. For the player, there’s this kinda negative reaction created – that’s not just an empty room, that’s Caroline’s room, the room belonging to the previous leader of the resistance. And Grace just rocks in and doesn’t give a shit. I don’t think the developers intended for it to create this negative reaction, I think they were just a bit clumsy. There were plenty of ways to make that transition a bit smoother. In Wyatt’s timeline, for instance, he’s put in charge after Caroline’s death, and he’s not coping with it. It would’ve been very easy for one or two lines where Wyatt is like hi, you’re in charge now, here’s the boss’s room, thank god I’m out. Easy. There’s a smooth transition of power, and it’s still respectful to Caroline. Because Grace likes Caroline, right, she talks about how Caroline’s great just before BJ’s comment about her balls. I dunno – it’s just a weird moment where Grace comes off as unnecessarily shitty.
Fourth issue, how Grace treats Fergus. If you’re in the Fergus timeline, Fergus and Grace have something of an antagonistic relationship. That’s fine in itself. The problem is that Grace is, well, kinda racist to Fergus. She keeps calling him ‘Englishman’, even though he’s Scottish – even though he’s wearing a fucking bomber jacket with GLASGOW emblazoned on the back. He says explicitly to her, don’t call me English, and she just doesn’t really give a shit. That’s a problem. The Scots have their own history of colonization by the Brits. They’ve got their own history of oppression, their own rebellions and resistance movements. The Scots are just as much a colonized people as anybody else in the world. And by repeatedly referring to Fergus as ‘Englishman’, Grace is (again) running roughshod over an important issue. Again, I think the developers were trying to make it come off as friendly antagonism, but they’re displaying their own ignorance of the issues at play. In the end Grace just looks like a racist who doesn’t care about any oppression other than her own.
Fifth issue, BJ. Not how Grace treats BJ – no, just BJ. When Grace has her spiel about balls, BJ just goes ‘hah, fair enough.’ It’s interesting that he doesn’t get offended – I was a little surprised, to be honest, but in a good way. And then all of Grace’s people run to the ship, and BJ kicks some furniture over the door to cover their exit and shouts “Come and fucking get me, you white ass fascist Nazi pigs.” And I thought oh, that’s why it’s uncomfortable, BJ’s not confronting his own privilege. When Grace is calling out the masculine language of ‘balls = bad-ass’, she’s in a sense also calling out BJ. He’s part of the wider social and cultural systems that privilege men over women, that see men as action heroes and women as damsels. BJ benefits from those systems, and when Grace calls those systems out, she’s calling out BJ. And okay, he kinda acknowledges that it’s prejudiced in a really charming and generous way. He basically just chuckles and goes ‘lol yeah fair’. There’s an implicit acknowledgement of the problems at play. But then when he’s suddenly talking like a black revolutionary and shouting about white-ass fascist pigs – just hold up a minute, right. BJ might be a Jew, but he’s also a white American. And as a white American, he’s benefited from a history of slavery and segregation. New Order actually deals with this issue much better – we’ve talked about how not-Jimi-Hendrix says to BJ that before the Nazis, white Americans were the bad guys. BJ is confronted with the fact of his whiteness, with the fact of his racial history, and it fucks him off. In New Colossus, BJ is never confronted in that way – or at least, not by Grace. He does have an ideological argument with the communists, much later in the game – but he’s never actively challenged about his race. He’s allowed to enter the black community, identify with their troubles, and then shout their slogans and fight the Nazis on their behalf while they’re all scampering out the back. White saviour indeed.
All up, Grace is a bit of an awkward character. I want to like her, and she stands for good things, and the developers are clearly on the right side of history. But being on the right side doesn’t mean you’re making good art. I think there’s a whole host of issues around race and Grace’s character more generally that are dealt with really poorly by the game. More on that soon…