The men I hang out with are permanently disappointed that I don’t fuck The Iron Bull in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
It’s not that he’s not a fascinating character, or that he’s not sexy. He’s big and strong and funny and his arc is interesting. There’s a slew of interesting characters to kiss in a Dragon Age: Inquisition, but for me the appeal is not in simulating a relationship I’ve had before — that is, with someone fascinating. It’s grasping something I remain convinced I’ll never have: a relationship with a heterosexual man who listens to me and respects me.
More Like This:
- The Five Worst Dates in Dragon Age
- Cracking the Egg, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Solas Romance
- RPGs, Adventure, and the Fantasy of Perpetual Growth
Ball and Chain
A fun party trick is to ask someone to name the first three Disney princes, and not just as “The Prince” or “Prince Charming.” It’s fun to watch people flounder, grasping for these details. Some of this fogginess is due to the fact that the first three princess movies don’t get as much play as the later ones, but some of it also rests on a certain thinness of character. As time goes on, Disney gave their princes more obvious names and characteristics, beyond “availability” and “owning a horse,” but initially, they were written with the same emotional complexity as a piece of furniture.
The point isn’t that they’re fascinating or that they’re interesting — their purpose is to be handsome and love the princess. And as the movie ends, they sit beside her like a non-threatening trophy. Snow White is not subsumed by Florian any more than Cinderella is consumed by Prince Charming or Aurora is devoured by Phillip. But of course, these stories aren’t for boys, and Disney princes only began to achieve dimension as Disney reached for a male audience.
There is a unique horror to watching beautiful, fully-realized, fascinating women marry men who cannot seem to wash their own asses or buy their own shirts. Some of the pain in this rests on the fact that men who marry are never transformed into husbands the way women who marry are transformed into wives. Women who marry men, over and over, stop being agents of their own lives and instead become the supporting cast of some guy. Heterosexual relationships rob women of ownership of their own lives.
Watching women be subsumed by their husbands constitutes its own acclaimed genre, holding simultaneously horror like The Stepford Wives, drama like The Wife, and news items like Pegi Young’s botched obituary or way Ted Hughes controlled Sylvia Plath even in death. In The Matrix, Trinity is told by the prophecy that her holiest task is to love Neo. In Frankenstein, Elizabeth Lavenza is physically transformed into a bride for Victor Frankenstein’s monster. It is hideous, to love men but fear being swallowed whole by them. It is hideous, to desire men but know that they will no more listen when you say no then when you try to help them. They will blunder onward, casually tearing down the wives bound to them like invasive ivy tears down a wall.
Make Ruthless Decisions
Dragon Age hinges on the notion that your choices matter and that they have real ramifications for the people around you. The idea that you could give advice to someone you love and they would listen to it is as appealing as the idea of rebuilding a mouldering castle and murdering traitorous kings. Hoping to experience any of these things feels equally fantastic, but that you could ask something of a man and he would listen to you feels like it should be real.
Of the romance options available to female Inquisitors, Cullen fascinates me because he is the least proximal to marginality. Cullen is human, he is male, he is cisgender, he is straight, and he comes from a stable family that loves and understands him. I’m fascinated by this because Cullen is so blissfully normal; he is the game’s closest equivalent to the star football player who grows up to be a cop. The Iron Bull is a racial and religious minority in the community he lives in now. Blackwall is escaping a shady past and living under an assumed identity. Both of them offer their own distinct, soap-operatic appeal, but they tell a story too close to the life I lead already. Cullen looks like a missing member of a boy band and plays chess for fun.
Cullen’s story doesn’t exist alongside yours, as he has no narrative arc without the main character. His story cannot subsume you, as all of Cullen’s choices are contingent on both your existence and your own choices. He is your military leader, but the game makes it abundantly clear that without you, there is no military. Cullen leaves the Templars, the institution that exists in-game to police magic-users, to lead this military. However, he puts the choice to materially divorce himself from the Templars in your hands.
In the world of Dragon Age, Templars are obliged to continuously ingest a drug that nominally makes them stronger tools in the war against magic users, but also leaves them dependent on the church that disburses it — a leash more than a superpower. Cullen approaches you and asks if he should continue this regimen, and then he listens to you. It does not matter that he prefers to quit this drug, and it does not matter that he will not fuck you if you tell him not to quit.
Cullen listens to you. Cullen takes your advice. Someone whose life thus far is not marked by trauma or marginality but instead by the safety of a normative homelife listens to you. You do not have to trade in a mutual experience of pain for him to listen. He just does, on the first ask. It is horror, to be bound to someone who cannot wash their own laundry but who controls your finances and public life and reproductive destiny. It is romance, to be asked sincerely to change someone’s life.
Happily Ever After
The horror of heterosexual relationships is servitude. The romance of heterosexual relationships is shared vulnerability. It is damning that in order to realistically construct the fantasy of a romantic relationship with a straight man, they must be nearly featureless, and it is a terrible desire of mine that I crave this. I am queer and I have had complex, fulfilling, difficult relationships with real people. Real life is better than fantasy, but I cannot shake wanting. I’ve played this game three times, and every time I have embraced the Cullen romance. I know that there are other options, and I know that I can play this game and enact a queer romance.
I can’t help it though. I don’t play Dragon Age to live real life and for people who share in my struggle to see me. I play Dragon Age to be fascinating and worthy and equal to a demographic that historically has not treated me like a person. I am foolish for wanting impossible things, like the power to kill a dragon or respect from straight, cis men. Maybe in my fourth playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition, I’ll be wiser. I wouldn’t bet on it.