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Malenia the Severed defender of Miquella standing in the middle of a frame, with large, breathtaking wings made of gnarled red and black rot. She is wearing arm and leg armor, and is holding her right arm with her left arm, as if in pain. Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco via Polygon

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Elden Ring’s Malenia embodies FromSoftware’s problems with women

The game’s strongest boss betrays the developer’s biggest weakness

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She lies there, deep in the belly of the Haligtree, as if she had merely dozed off in the shafts of lights that filter down. Malenia the Severed (defender of Miquella!) has fallen to pieces, her one good arm resting at the feet of the whorls and gnarls that held her childlike brother. This enigmatic warrior captured the audience from the moment she appeared, and she featured prominently in the rest of the game’s marketing materials. But instead of becoming an uncontested favorite, she frustrated fans and revealed the limitations of FromSoftware’s imagination.

Malenia is a hard-as-nails endgame encounter, and while optional, she is a brick wall for a lot of players. Reminiscent of other difficult encounters, like Lady Maria from Bloodborne, it’s a two-phase fight full of fast, lethal strikes as Malenia heals from damage she’s dealt to the player.

As you encounter her in Elphael, she is instantly imposing. Her presence is quietly scary. Her movements are honed and practiced. Her voice is calm and unemotional. Her face is impassive. Everything in the first phase of the fight is designed to thwart and emasculate; there’s a deep humor in the idea of a woman whose very attacks steal health from you to empower herself. And the ultimate joke: Just when you think you’ve knocked her down, she gets back up one last time.

Malenia’s first death triggers her final transformation into the Goddess of Scarlet Rot, and she emerges triumphantly from her blossom to spread tragically beautiful wings of skin, rot, and butterflies. She is no longer clad in armor, and the camera does a long, slow reveal of her nakedness. Her body is crusted over with rot, and yet reveals her breasts and genitals being as smooth as a doll’s. It evokes a confusing mixture of fear and titillation, complicating the act of regarding her body. Her lack of protection does not feel like a vulnerability but a challenge.

The final part of the fight culminates into a whirlwind of aerial dive bombs, rot explosions, and multiple copies of herself dashing around you. When she finally dies, she recedes into the security of the rot blossom again, quietly threatening to return in a future time for retribution beyond a typical life cycle.

Malenia the Severed defender of Miquella hovering in the air with large, breathtaking wings made of gnarled red and black rot. She is wearing arm and leg armor, and is otherwise unclothed, with smooth doll-like skin. Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

Malenia exemplifies the way FromSoft writes women in its games. Whether bosses or NPCs you meet in the wild, these women have a shared condition. They exist in tragically declined worlds, sharing a specific brokenness; disfigurement, abandonment, and loss. They are afflicted by gender, and the “cure” for when they are obstacles instead of mutely helpful is for the player to enact succinct violence. It is a particular kind of idealized femininity, as fantastical as the foreboding castles and giant trees — demure, quiet, void of needs or motivations — an echoed presence of dolls, mothers, and even help-meets who guide the player along. Their emotions are muted in their more docile counterparts, before erupting into a shrieking, horrifying hysteria when encountered in combat.

Malenia is made up of this same stuff and isn’t unanimously hated, either; there is passion for a giant, red-haired woman in armor. Still, she is a contentious character subject to social media posts, memes, and arguments. It’s obvious that there is a contingent of the audience antagonized by her presence as both a boss (even if optional) and a figure in the game’s story.

Quite a few of these archetypal FromSoft women are beloved by the fans, such as the Emerald Herald (Dark Souls 2), the Fire Keeper (Dark Souls 3), or more recently Ranni the Witch (Elden Ring). [Ed. note: Nico is being quite generous here, not listing Demon’s Souls’ Maiden in Black, Dark Souls’ infamously heaving giantess Gwynevere, Sekiro’s Emma, and the quite-literally-named The Doll from Bloodborne.] The broader gaming community usually reacts harshly toward female characters, which makes the Soulsborne community’s embrace of them feel positive on the surface. When that affection feels based on that empty, emotionless state, or reduces them to infantilized “waifus,” you realize that hostility and that fondness spring from the same deep sexist roots, twins intertwined.

To quote Matt Kim, in his piece “Why Are Female Characters in ‘Dark Souls’ Games Quiet and Alien?”:

While not exclusive to Japanese anime, this sort of archetype is one of the most popular types of characters in the medium. Stranger still is that these characters are actively fetishized for their outer-worldliness. Their lack of a broad emotional spectrum is part of their appeal. Additionally, these characters are typically more resilient than everyone else in their story — perhaps, because they are unburdened by emotions. Yet one could also argue that their lack of “emotions”, used here as an unfortunate euphemism for men’s conception of female shortcomings, makes it easier to believe they are capable of such great strengths.

However, once engaged in combat, she reveals her true, monstrous form.

FromSoft’s female characters who deviate from this quiet, doll-like appearance are still written with a lack of emotionality, which feels close to masculine stoicism. It’s a strange emptiness that informs every permutation of character that women embody in these games.

Soulsborne games are infamous for challenging their audience, and over the years have attracted a particular kind of player base, often men, who take their boss-killing performance seriously. To some, the difficulty is the point of these experiences. This attitude has long kept many away from the studio’s games, but Elden Ring’s popularity attracted a wider audience ready to have bosses grind them into dust.

Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco via Nico Deyo

Malenia’s boss fight is punishingly difficult, and the audience’s hostile and competitive attitudes about it are often steeped in gendered toxicity. Numerous Reddit posts, YouTube videos, and tweets talk about players’ failures or successes, while littered with sexist slurs. People also fell back into the usual community discourse about which methods of beating her were more valid and which ones made you a “pussy,” and success over her took on a weird masculinized chest-beating at times. These reactions are distasteful but not surprising. This boss fight creates friction between the developer’s ideas about gender and its ideas about enabling a power fantasy. It creates a weird performance when the game encourages players to embrace failure. This is only heightened by Malenia’s character design.

The bravado about beating Malenia makes sense; she evokes the idea of a virginal warrior like Joan of Arc or Brienne of Tarth, her purity and strength existing in a place beyond femininity. Her aesthetic references Athena or valkyries, but even when that is stripped away, her nakedness is terrifying rather than provocative. Everything about her is hostile and taunts the player. When faced with a difficult, defiant woman who has never been beaten, men cannot help but fantasize about being the one to take her down. (Or at least be in the room when it happens.)

FromSoft’s style of hiding the world and story behind item descriptions and esoteric NPC dialogue both make the world unreliable and mysterious, but also reinforces fans’ biases toward Malenia. She’s a receding figure in the narrative, whether by choice or omission (there is some evidence of cut content that could have expanded her actual story). Her story is told largely in fragments, prior to encountering her in the Haligtree — the largest is her fight against Radahn. Shown in a story trailer released ahead of the game, the two demigods face off to claim the title of Elden Lord. Radahn cuts off her arm and in a desperate move, she takes her sword and leaps onto him, plunging the blade into herself and exploding into a giant rot blossom. The aftermath of this is clearly shown when the player steps into Caelid, blighted from edge to edge.

If a fan missed that trailer, their first encounter with Malenia’s influence is felt when going to fight Radahn. Witch-Hunter Jerren, a herald of Radahn, narrates about the general’s decline due to the Scarlet Rot. He’s a shadow of his former self, enfeebled and crazed, eating compatriots like an animal. It’s not hard to imagine how this would influence the audience into seeing her as an aggressor. It spurred fan discussion about how her transformation was “cheating” an otherwise fair fight. (The fact that Radahn was a master of gravity magic and also cut off her arm is not important.)

In order to shed light on Malenia’s journey, players must pursue a quest to save a young woman who is afflicted by rot, one who eerily looks like Malenia. The story reveals that the demigod dropped spore clones of herself, which blossomed in Caelid. All roads in FromSoft’s games lead back to women being mothers, even terrifying sword maidens.

These narrative choices swiftly undercut her initially provocative design, cheapening their impact. What’s the scariest thing a team of designers could dream up? A distant warrior woman who doesn’t care about them, slowly succumbing to a rot that infected her from birth. While Malenia’s character writing had grown slightly beyond the way women were written in earlier FromSoft games, her arc is still confined by the same laws. What could have been a place for mechanical and narrative evolution backslides into being merely a means to an end within a video game. Women continue to populate the path as either passive help-meets or predictable obstacles, which the fan base is all too happy to step over.

While FromSoft’s games are often intriguing meditations on the corrupting influence of power, the inevitability of death, and the lurking dread of cosmic horror, the women in them feel stunted. Malenia is a half-grown idea clipped back too short. What could have been is left on the floor of the Haligtree, cocooned in petals, and deeply dreaming of revenge.