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An up-close screenshot of Ada Wong’s face in Capcom’s Resident Evil 4 remake. Image: Capcom

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Resident Evil’s Ada Wong goes head-to-head with sexpionage stereotypes

Capcom evolved Ada Wong’s look for the recent Resident Evil 4 remake, yet she continues to be caught between differing expectations

Let’s get one thing clear: I am obsessed with Ada Wong. While she first appeared in Resident Evil 2 as a spy in Raccoon City, I first got acquainted with her during my playthrough of the original Resident Evil 4. Needless to say, I immediately loved her. Ada is a femme fatale to the core, always wearing a seductive red dress and doing killer flips while fighting and zipping around with her hookshot. When I found out about Ada-specific extra content Separate Ways, I sped through the ending of RE4 to get to it, and of course I giggled and kicked my feet every time she showed up in the RE4 remake. She fits in perfectly with Resident Evil 4’s schlocky action-movie energy and her equally ridiculous macho counterparts, Leon and Krauser.

Polygon is diving into the world of espionage throughout fiction and pop culture history with Deep Cover, a two-week special issue covering all sorts of spy stories and gadgets.

Ada is a very fun character in a fun game. But RE4’s cinematic approach comes with plenty of action-movie tropes. Some, like Leon’s terrible movie hero one-liners and head-exploding roundhouse kicks, are still really funny. Others — especially the ones that apply to my favorite international spy — aren’t. So let’s dig into that.

The title screen for Separate Ways gives a bump to her femme fatale reading: In a nod to the 1990 film La Femme Nikita, Ada is shown in the same pose as the titular Nikita in the movie’s poster. The movie is about a young woman who becomes an assassin and falls in love, and fans have noted that Ada’s love for a man (namely, Leon) is a trait they share.

Ada is Asian American, though, and that impacts the reading of the femme fatale trope, since she also ends up falling very neatly into the derogatory “Dragon Lady” trope, which portrays Asian female characters as deceitful, mysterious, villainous, and domineering. Oftentimes, these characters are dressed in sexualised Asian-inspired costumes to emphasize their foreignness. While all-American boy Leon Kennedy runs around Spain to save the president’s daughter, Ada stands in contrast to him in her modernized Chinese qipao while working in tandem with notorious Resident Evil villain Wesker. Even her name reminds me of Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star, who was often forced into playing these types of characters because of the limited roles available to Asian women.

Calling Ada a villain would be a stretch, since she actually has a soft spot for Leon and helps him throughout the game, but in RE4 her sexualized and shady persona — along with her famous red dress — is the “Dragon Lady” trope to a T. I correctly anticipated that the RE4 remake developers would change Ada’s dress in order to distance her from this trope. The remake is also the first time in a Resident Evil game that Ada was voiced by an Asian actor, Lily Gao, who unfortunately faced harassment on social media for her performance. Gao made a post on Instagram addressing the harassment she had experienced and voicing her support for authentic casting, writing that “inauthentic casting perpetuates an unhealthy image that further dehumanizes the community they seek to reflect. It is time we stop only capitalizing on the sexualized, eroticised, and mysterious Asian woman, and make space to honour every kind of Asian woman.”

On paper it might seem like Ada is composed of shallow sexy spy stereotypes, but I believe there is more nuance to her character than that. Maybe I just have a soft spot for her. After all, there were very few Asian American characters in popular gaming when Ada stepped onto the scene in Resident Evil 4, and in 2005, our expectations for conscientious representation of Asian female characters were lower. Seeing a cool and capable Asian woman in a game like this was actually really incredible!

Black and white sketches and character models show Ada Wong looking like a crow.
Resident Evil Village concept art shows cut designs for Ada Wong.
Image: Capcom

Ada has character moments that flesh her out, too, but the hitch is that they mostly involve Leon, a hallmark of the “sexpionage” trope. Sexpionage is when intimacy, romance, or sexual activity happens during espionage, and it happens every time Ada and Leon cross paths. However, their relationship also shows a more nuanced side to Ada beyond the coldhearted femme fatale, which I like. [Warning: The following contains a spoiler for Capcom’s Resident Evil 4 remake.] For example, Leon and Ada’s conversations during the RE4 remake highlight how Ada has changed since Raccoon City, as she refuses to deliver the Plaga to Wesker in order to avoid casualties. The problem isn’t the existence of the romance between Ada and Leon — it’s that their romance is the only vehicle for character development that Ada is given.

We don’t know a lot about Ada’s history or motives; perhaps that’s intentional, to maintain her mysterious spy image. Because of that, we only see the more humanizing aspects of her character in relation to her romance with Leon. Consider how Ada is a part of Leon’s character development in RE4, but he still gets to develop without her. Ada being trapped in “romantic” plots seems to be a recurring problem, as her subsequent appearance in Resident Evil 6 also involves the main villain having an unrequited infatuation with her. It feels like this kind of thing is a natural pitfall for “sexpionage” storylines.

It’s definitely possible we could see more of Ada in the future. I’m still holding out for a Separate Ways-type DLC for the RE4 remake. She was also originally supposed to have a role in Resident Evil Village according to early concept art, conducting an investigation on the village while Ethan was searching for his daughter; Ada would then save him during this first encounter with the Lords. This concept was eventually cut, but it’s promising, because it’s both the exact kind of development I want for her outside of romance, and an indicator that Ada could still be a player in the franchise. But what really makes me hopeful is something Gao said in her statement where she reflected on her performance, saying, “My Ada is a survivor. She is kind, just, intelligent, and funny. She is unpredictable, resilient, and absolutely not a stereotype.” Knowing that there was care put into her remake portrayal by an actor who understands how much depth Ada could have made me very happy, and I can’t wait to see where my favorite lady in red may pop up next.