Elden Ring and the Monstrous Feminine

By Ally Allen ’24

Majors: English and Communications & Media Studies

Brief Description: Some game journalists claim that FromSoftware has a “woman problem”. In this paper, I argue that in Elden Ring both Rennala and Melania are monstrously feminine, Rennala being the embodiment of the Monstrous Mother and Melania being the complex representation of abject feminine horror, as well as creating some critical dialogue that her identity is complicated by being disabled and queered in these ways. I also want to open new critical dialogue about the complexity of female villains especially in video games and ultimately show that FromSoftware’s “woman problem” just isn’t true.

The following was written for CMS 394: Race, Class and Gender in Popular Media

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

As of Thursday Dec 8th, Elden Ring now has the title of Game of the Year for 2022. Elden Ring has been a massive success, but of course, it has its flaws. For some context, Elden Ring takes place in the Lands Between, a fictional landmass ruled over by several demigods. It was previously ruled over by the immortal Queen Marika, who acted as keeper of the Elden Ring, a powerful force that manifested as the physical concept of order. When Marika eventually shattered the Elden Ring and disappeared, her demigod children began warring over pieces of the Ring in an event called the Shattering. Each demigod possesses a shard of the Ring called a Great Rune, which corrupts them with power. In the game, the player character is a Tarnished, one of a group of exiles from the Lands Between who are summoned back after the Shattering. As one of the Tarnished, the player must traverse the realm to repair the Elden Ring and become the Elden Lord. 

This may be game director Miyazaki’s most ambitious project to date, but he delivered. Miyazaki’s games generally have a non-linear and arguably non-traditional narrative style that encourages discussions in the community about what is actually happening. Much of this discussion is about characters and their complex motivations within each narrative. He has a particularly interesting reputation for how he writes female characters, which completely changes how the players interact with them. Much of the discourse surrounding his female characters is mixed. Some people think that “FromSoftware has a women problem,” according to a response to Polygon from Ryan Pearson, which states that “one of Elden Ring’s bosses Melania, Blade of Miquella, is another example of FromSoftware’s problem with women.” They argue that Melania and other female characters through their games usually have physical disability or mental trauma, and are emotionally “muted” in some manner. This applies to helpful NPCs or bosses that exude “masculine stoicism,” except when the former becomes the latter “before erupting into a shrieking, horrifying hysteria when encountered in combat.” Motifs with dolls and motherly figures were also noted (Pearson, 2022). This argument is more nuanced than it may initially seem. While articles such as this one from Polygon have some merit, they frequently cherry pick examples to illustrate their point, while ignoring the larger context of the games the characters appear in. Having a background in media studies helps alleviate this nuance a bit, especially to explain why not only Melania, but also the character Rennala, might seem to fall short to some. They are an embodiment of what is called the Monstrous Feminine. 

The theory of the Monstrous Feminine was first coined in 1993 by Barbara Creed in her book of the same name. She explains the Monstrous Feminine through feminist theory and psychoanalysis of horror films by challenging the patriarchal views in those films. She then goes on to explain that the female reproductive body is what is most monstrous in these films, giving “faces” to the kinds of monstrous women that she sees (Creed 1993). She spends most of this book talking about iterations of “the monstrous mother.” 

To talk about Elden Ring, though, I must explain a feminist approach to popular culture and how women’s studies in relationship to media will also nuance this reading. In the essay Feminist Approaches to Popular Cultures, the section on “Images and Representations Approach” by Lana Rakov explains that scholars interested in the images of women are trying to answer several questions, but mainly (1) What kinds of images are present? (2) Whose images are they and who do they serve? And (3) What are the consequences of these images? (Rakov 1994). I’m also interested in answering these questions in relation to the women of Elden Ring. The idea of emphasized femininity is important to this discussion. In the UMassAmherst book, Introduction to Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, it explains that “emphasized femininity is a compliance with the normative ideal of femininity, as it is oriented to serving the interests of men (Connell 1987)” (Kang, Lessard, Heston, Nordmarken, 2017). This is important to consider when we talk about the hyper-feminine images of the characters in Elden Ring and how their femininity becomes the subject of horror. 

In Elden Ring, Rennala, Queen of the Full Moon, embodies the idea of a monstrous mother. In the larger story of the game, Rennala is the head of the Carian royal family, a once proud family in charge of one of the regions in the Lands Between, Liurnia, which has waned in influence over time. She is also the leader of the Academy of Raya Lucaria, a prestigious school dedicated to the study of sorcery and outer space. Long before the events of the game, at the height of the royal family’s and the academy’s power, Rennala was married to Radagon, who she had previously been at war with. Radagon and Rennala had three children – Praetor Rykard, General Radahn, and Lunar Princess Ranni. However, for unknown reasons, Radagon abandoned Rennala to wed Queen Markia, leaving Rennala only a parting gift in the form of an amber egg, which has the power to grant rebirth. During the Shattering, all of the demigods in the Lands Between, including Rennala’s children, claimed shards of the broken Elden Ring and took to their own ruinous paths. Rykard became obsessed with a creature known as the God-Devouring Serpent, ultimately becoming fused with the creature and going mad with power. Radahn, in a desperate attempt to maintain the status quo Radagon and Marika had established, went to war with Malenia, his half sibling, who unleashed the scarlet rot on his land, driving him mad as he rotted from the inside. Finally, Ranni, likely the closest child to Rennala, used the stolen Rune of Death to slay her own flesh in an attempt to free herself from the influence of outer gods, before vanishing from the Lands Between, presumed dead. These events left Rennala heartbroken and weakened, clinging to the amber egg gifted to her by Radagon (Elden Ring, 2022). 

During her boss fight, as we can see in the cutscene, there are children/students along the floor of the library who Rennala has birthed from the amber egg. They attack the play character (PC) with magic, while Rennala floats peacefully above them. At this point, Rennala is surrounded by a shield that is being maintained magically by three of her students. The PC must find these students and attack them to break their focus, breaking Rennala’s shield and causing her to fall to the floor, allowing the PC to attack her directly. To reiterate, during this whole fight Rennala herself will not injure the PC. Rennala will sometimes perform an attack where she will turn her “sweetings” (students) into tombstones that will target the PC and act like projectiles aimed at the PC. I interpret this specific attack as Rennala using the “sweetings” to protect herself once she realizes the PC is hostile to her. This attack can only happen if Rennala has been hit but not killed. Other than this one attack, she lays on floor helpless during phase one when her shield breaks, leaving her defenseless. 

This is showing that Rennala is a monstrous mother because of her obsession with rebirth. That is not only shown in phase one of her boss fight, but it can also be seen throughout item descriptions in Raya Lucaria, as well as conversations with Non-playable characters (NPCs) like Miriel. She is a bit different though than other monstrous mothers, especially the ones that Barbara Creed is examining, because Rennala’s whole fight is optional. The PC does not even have to come to Raya Lucaria to progress the story. Barbara Creed and other scholars interested in the monstrous feminine will talk about “unavoidable” monsters because of the medium. A movie’s monster is unavoidable, but a monster in an open-world role-playing video game has a possibility of being avoidable: 

Without gameplay experience, [the viewer’s] disgust and lack of understanding is much more pronounced…The players’ view represents a kind monstrosity that is specific to the medium of video games. Although video game monsters may look like the ones we know from genre films, they also move and act within simulated worlds, following the rules laid out by game designers. Driven by a constant demand for action and challenge, video games present us with monsters that can be analyzed and defeated (Svelch,2013, pp. 193-194). 

The medium of video games allows for this subversion of expectations of what a monster is and can do. Video games allow for the monster in question to be overcome, whereas film leaves the audience in a more passive role. FromSoftware uses this to subvert the monstrous feminine by having Rennala at this point be completely devastated, and arguably humiliated. All she has left is her amber egg. She is also not a particularly threatening character, considering that she is the only boss you don’t kill upon defeat. She instead stays in her library as a way for the PC to be “rebirthed”, which is a way for the PC to change their stats and appearance. After the fight, Rennala’s situation really hasn’t changed. She still wants the PC to be reborn. She, to reach a little, wants to be the PC’s mother. In this position, she isn’t hostile after the fight, or even really acknowledges that her boss fight has happened, because she is too far gone in her obsession with the egg. 

Rennala, however, is a two-phase boss. For the sake of consistency, I will be defining a “phase” as the part of the boss fight when there is a cutscene separating the first half of the fight from the second. Some bosses, though, will change phase when they lose a certain amount of health and do a move that changes the fight, making it more difficult. Rennala and Melania’s phases are separated by cutscenes when their original health bar is completely drained. This is also clear in the video linked.

Rennala’s second phase is just as important to touch on because it is not actually her the PC is fighting. In the cutscene transition to phase two, Ranni the Witch makes herself known and fights the PC on behalf of her mother. Ranni takes the physical appearance and magical abilities of her mother, presumably at her prime. Ranni, though, is much more aggressive in her fighting than Rennala is by using various spells and summons. At the end of the fight, the PC hears the real Rennala basically thank her for helping, but also a bittersweet kind of mourning message: “Oh little Ranni, my dear daughter, Weave thy night into being” (Elden Ring 2022). It’s not entirely clear what this means, as is the case with much of the dialogue in Elden Ring, but it could be that Rennala believes she has lost her daughter again, making this boss all the more tragic.

Another tragic character, and arguably why the discussion of the representation of women in FromSoftware’s games has resurfaced, is Malenia, Blade of Miquella. Between her and Rennala, she is going to be the harder of the two to make sense of. She was also the initial inspiration for this project. In the game’s larger story, Malenia is the daughter of the gods Marika and Radagon, along with her twin brother, Miquella the Unalloyed. Malenia and Miquella are often seen as counterparts, because while Miquella embodies purity, Malenia is afflicted with a sickness known as the scarlet rot, a corruption from an unnamed outer god that is literally rotting away her flesh from the inside. This rot caused Miquella and Malenia’s faith in their parents’ rule to waver, as nothing seemed to be able to cure it. Instead, Miquella decided to create his own Erdtree, the Haligtree, to establish himself as god, though this resulted in failure.

During the Shattering, Malenia fought against her half-brother Radahn, who was attempting to maintain Marika’s order, while Malenia sought to dismantle it and put Miquella in charge. The two were equally matched in combat, and in desperation, Malenia released her rot on Radahn and his lands, driving him mad and turning his region into a wasteland. After the battle, when Malenia gets back to the Haligtree, she sees that Miquella has been kidnapped. The loss of her brother, as well as the shame from releasing the scarlet rot on Radahn’s lands, sends Malenia into a deep depression, waiting at the roots of the Haligtree for the return of her brother that would never happen.

Melania embodies a different but similar monstrous feminine to Rennala because she not only has the tendencies of a monstrous mother in relation to how she wants to protect Miquella, but she also is “unwomaned” in this battle. Her rot makes her “unwomaned” in a more abject sense as well. To understand the UnWoman in video games Sarah Daniels explains it as, 

Powerful women have been perceived as threats to systems of masculine control. These women have been deemed UnWomen—other than what Woman should be—and are read, throughout literature, as the archetypal, monstrous femme fatale. This UnWoman embodies Kristeva’s abject… being perceived by her culture as generally monstrous. When this type of woman is read from the Game Theory perspective, the monstrous woman— [disturbs the] masculine power structure… (Daniels, 2020). 

This can be seen in Melania because her goal is not to fulfil the traditionally feminine role of queen, but to make sure Miquella becomes god. She’s pushing against the established patriarchal system that her parents have established. This is also why her fight in the Shattering with Radahn feels so tragic. She doesn’t actually have conflict with Radahn, but rather the system that he fights to uphold. 

It may seem odd to explain a land ruled by a woman as patriarchal, but patriarchy can exist without men. Marika is ultimately upholding the ideals and expectations that men would have if they were in charge. This makes the patriarchy more of a system entrenched in the ideals of male rule, rather than the direct actions of male rule. In the essay “Patriarchy, the System” by Allan G Johnson, he explains that,

If we see patriarchy as nothing more than men’s and women’s individual personalities, motivations, and behavior, then it won’t occur to us to ask about larger contexts—such as institutions like the family, religion, and the economy—and how people’s lives are shaped in relation to them… The something larger that we all participate in is patriarchy, which is more than a collection of individuals. It is a social system, which means it cannot be reduced to the people who participate in it. (Johnson, 2014, pp.28-29). 

Marika is not to blame for this, but it is the system she upholds that is to blame. This is also why, ultimately, Melania and Miquella seek to disturb this system, making both Miquella and Melania “UnGendered,” for lack of a better word. 

In Melania’s boss-fight these ideas work in tandem to create an atmosphere that affects the PC in different ways. In phase one, she is leaning more into the ideas and actions of a monstrous mother by fighting the PC because they have trespassed on her brother’s roots. She is acting as a type of monstrous mother by being so protective and heartbroken over Miquella that she lays at the roots of the Haligtree waiting for his return. Thus, when the PC enters her boss room, she only fights you because you’re there and do not have her brother. 

Simultaneously, though, she is “UnWomaned” not only in her role in society, but also because of her physical appearance being disfigured by the scarlet rot. Julia Kristev’s idea of abjection can be used to explain how Melania is “UnWomaned” by the rot. Generally, abjection is the idea that the human body’s insides shouldn’t be on the outside. This can be physically, like seeing the insides of someone’s body coming out like blood or vomit, or it can be abstract, like giving birth. The female body has become a motif for the abject and is used as a tool to scare in the genre of horror (Kristev, 1980). Melania being disfigured by the rot is another example of abjection. When you first find her at the roots of the Haligtree, in phase one of her boss fight, the player can see the bone and tissue left on her one amputated arm before she puts on her prosthetic arm. This prosthetic happens to also house her katana, meaning that her identity is a warrior first and foremost. The player also sees her various other prosthetics and missing body parts from the rot, making it nearly impossible for her to navigate the world around without said prosthetics. Indeed, the rot has taken not only her sword arm and her feet, but even her eyes, likely rendering her blind. Her disability isn’t what is abject, to be clear, but rather how her disfigurement looks and the emphasis by the art direction to make it graphic creates a visceral feeling that the player can feel. Abjection is more of the feeling that people get from these images rather than the actual ailment. 

This feeling becomes clearer when Melania transitions to phase two, when she becomes the Goddess of Rot. In the transition cutscene to phase two, she unleashes her rot once more, just as she did with Radahn, but with the PC she fully gives into her outer-god, becoming the Goddess of Rot. The PC now sees the full extent of the damage the rot has had on her, since she is now fully naked. Her genitals have rotted off, leaving a crusty, almost fungal look over her breasts and vagina. Most interestingly, though, she says, “You will witness true horror. Now rot!” (Elden Ring, 2022) to the PC. In this moment, Melania acknowledges that her rot is powerful and to be feared, calling it a “true horror.” This directly shows a disruption in the norms by instilling fear and awe in the PC despite her disability. Melania is dangerous, but the PC cannot flee, as it is not a mechanic in the game. Her appearance is also hauntingly beautiful. Despite the physical rot, she has butterflies and flowers as wings, alluding to very feminine imagery. This is also a very physical metaphor for the life cycle that all things born will ultimately die and rot. She becomes a Memento Mori of sorts for the larger Elden Ring narrative. 

She is an outlet from other disabled characters, so the conversations of how the game deals with disability comes up a lot with her. This has always been a discussion from fans of FromSoftware’s games. The academic conversations of disability studies, I believe, can add some much needed nuance on the connection between disability and queerness,  

Compulsory heterosexuality is intertwined with compulsory able-bodiness; both systems work to (re)produce the able body and heterosexuality. But precisely because they depend on a queer/disabled existence that can never quite be contained, able-bodied heterosexuality’s hegemony is always in danger of being disrupted (McRuer, 2017). 

Queerness may seem unrelated in this essay, but it is not. This is a vital part of the Elden Ring story. When talking about Melania and her identity as being disabled, this lens makes the most sense. It adds the space for how normativity cannot exist without the concept of queerness. Melania, by being both disabled and a powerful warrior and demi-god, disrupts all kinds of norms in the game. Ultimately the point is that she is a threat to the order that Marika aims to maintain. At this point in her fight, she has given up her humanity to ultimately protect Miquella. She doesn’t really care about beating the PC specifically, rather her motivation in releasing the scarlet rot again is because of her inability to realize that Miquella will not return to the Haligtree.

After the PC finally defeats Malenia, Goddess of Rot, if they leave the area and return, they will find that Malenia’s body has bloomed into an enormous red flower known as the scarlet aeonia. The flower is one of the most striking images in Elden Ring since it is such a beautiful flower, but also terrifying since it is what spreads the scarlet rot. The scarlet aeonia also shows up for anyone related to the rot when they die. If the player does an optional sidequest for an NPC named Milicent, she can leave this same flower behind once she dies. There is also a giant scarlet aeonia in the room before Melania’s boss room, presumably from someone related to Melania who had died there. Not much is actually known about it, since most of the time it is missed by players, and when investigating it, it has little to no context around it in terms of items or messages. Nonetheless, it is a very feminine image for such a horrific but beautiful flower. It also symbolizes what both Melania and Rennala are obsessed with: rebirth. Of course, they are obsessed in different ways, Rennala being very literal with her egg and Melania being more related to the rot. The rot can be seen as rebirth since a new flower must bloom to spread it. The rot can also birth monstrosities called the kindred of rot. In doing so, the rot makes itself an inanimate mother to them, but they see Melania as their mother. 

Melania and Rennala seem to be quite talked about characters when talking about Elden Ring as a game, but not enough time is spent trying to give their characters nuance. These characters are surprisingly good representations of the complexity of humans and human action. They are also, without a doubt, not a plastic representation of women. Plastic representation is the idea coined by Kristen Warner, that a media text may look like good representation but is actually shallow and lacks depth (Warner, 2017). FromSoftware, and more specifically Elden Ring, does not do this to their female characters because while they may not be “good” people morally, they have depth and complex motivation for their actions, making the representation more realistic even in a fantasy setting. 

References

Allen, A. (2022). Melania Boss Fight. YouTube. https://youtu.be/Xo-XWPxIERQ

Allen, A. (2022). Rennala Boss Fight. YouTube. https://youtu.be/cqmkp03kxn4

Allen, A. (2022). Rennala Items. YouTube. https://youtu.be/1AhzALerMok

Allen, A. (2022). turtle pope. YouTube. https://youtu.be/NPyPc098R1o

Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence. (2017). In L. J. Davis (Ed.), The Disability Studies Reader. Taylor & Francis Group.

Creed, B. (1993). The monstrous-feminine: film, feminism, psychoanalysis. Routledge.

Daniels, S. (2020, December). Literary Game Theory and Monstrous Femininity. shsu-ir.tdl.org. https://shsu-ir.tdl.org/handle/20.500.11875/2914

Feminist Approach to Popular Culture. (2006). In J. Storey (Ed.), Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. Pearson/Prentice Hall

Infernal Ramblings. (2022, November 25). Mending the Elden Ring Discourse: A Western GameDev’s Response. YouTube. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yO3BRGm7vyo&t=3047s

Johnson, A. G. (2005). The gender knot: Unraveling our patriarchal legacy (Revised and updated ed.). Temple University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1982). Powers of horror: an essay on abjection (L. S. Roudiez, Ed.; L. S. Roudiez, Trans.). Columbia University Press.

Media – Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies. (2017). Open Books. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from http://openbooks.library.umass.edu/introwgss/chapter/media/

Pearson, R. (2022, October 6). Polygon Claims ‘Elden Ring’ Boss Malenia “Embodies FromSoftware’s Problems With Women”. Bounding Into Comics. Retrieved December 11, 2022, from https://boundingintocomics.com/2022/10/06/polygon-claims-malenia-from-elden-ring-embodies-fromsoftwares-problems-with-women-internet-responds/

Švelch, J. (2013). Monsters by the numbers: Controlling monstrosity in video games. In M. Levina & D.-M. T. Bui (Eds.), Monster culture in the 21st century a reader (pp. 193–208). New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Warner, K. (2017). In the Time of Plastic Representationhttps://filmquarterly.org/2017/12/04/in-the-time-of-plastic-representation/

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