Notes on Ubisoft’s Charlotte Corday

It’s been a weird few days. A tweet of mine, what I thought was a completely mild, innocuous tweet, took off and has so far been retweeted something like 1800 times. A screenshot of that tweet was featured in a tumblr post that so far has about 140k notes.

In the tweet I’m talking about Charlotte Corday, of course. She’s the assassin that killed Marat and whose murderous act inspired the most famous piece of art to come out of the revolutionary period, David’s The Death of Marat (1793).

I’ve never been associated with anything like these numbers before, and, as you can imagine, I’ve been receiving lots of eloquent and polite correspondence on twitter as a result. Nothing as bad as if I happened to be a woman saying the same thing, of course. I’ve mostly ignored it, but I wanted to do something to catalogue some thoughts in response.

So here is an encyclopaedia of ignorance that I’ve seen so far, and some unorganised thoughts in reply.

  1. You don’t know anything about Assassin’s Creed. In previous games you don’t play as a real person. I know. No-one’s suggesting you play as Charlotte Corday (though that would be cool, wouldn’t it?). The point is that Ubisoft have assumed that a male assassin is the default, whereas the actual history of the period suggests the complete opposite. Maybe Ubisoft should be forced to justify why they’ve chosen a male assassin over the more logical and historically relevant decision to play as a woman. Why have they reorganised history?
  2. Ubisoft can’t be sexist. In Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, you played as not just a woman, but a non-white woman too. I do know this. I briefly got to know the writer of Liberation, Jill Murray, at an event we both spoke at earlier in the year, and I can’t imagine a smarter choice of writer to be involved in the series.I hope she is doing some great work on this very point behind the scenes right now. But you know the fact the AC games have had a woman protagonist before actually makes this decision—and its accompanying excuse—worse, don’t you? It’s not a precedent which excuses all subsequent offences. It’s a building block from which to move forward—and a pillar that proves that excuses of cost or workload when it comes to playable women are laughable.
  3. Charlotte Corday will probably turn up as a character in the game. Yep, it seems likely. That doesn’t change anything, really. I just hope that we don’t assassinate Marat with her looking on, as we rode Paul Revere’s horse for him in Assassin’s Creed III. That would, for obvious reasons, be bad.
  4. Because Charlotte Corday is famous/was caught, she wasn’t a good assassin. Or, as one person tweeted at me this morning, she apparently wasn’t an assassin at all (for reasons best kept to himself and his six followers). This actually really concerns me, because it suggests that there are people out there that truly believe that there have been real Assassin’s Creed-style assassins throughout history, the kind that successfully knock off dozens, if not hundreds of important targets and slip away into the crowd, or parkour off into the distance, to be unrecognised both by their contemporaries and by history. Seriously, if you believe this—especially about such a well-documented and widely-studied era as the French Revolution—then I implore you to pick up a book and read, and expand your understanding of history beyond the Assassin’s Creed games. I love the AC games. I have at least 20,000 words on them through my PhD thesis. They are fantasies of history. Real assassination is utterly unromantic and flawed. Charlotte Corday is the image of a real assassin—a newcomer to violence, working for all intents and purposes by herself, who either intended to be caught or understood it as an inevitability, and who planned accordingly so as to make a statement. Ezio is not reality.

Most importantly of all: by creating an all-male-protagonist French Revolution videogame, Ubisoft have entered a long-held tradition of downplaying or marginalising the role of women in the Revolution. This happened both at the time and through the writing of history subsequently. After her execution, Charlotte Corday was examined to find out if she was a virgin—if she had been ‘sharing her bed’ then surely we would find a man’s hand behind the assassination (this was not the case). Could a woman really have come up with this plan herself?

Women were repeatedly denied rights, both before the revolution, during it, and after it. The famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen remains silent on women, despite a preceding petition calling for equal rights for women. This situation lead to Olympe de Gouges’ complex and witty Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which is ironically dedicated to Marie Antoinette, and declares (remember, this is 1791) that “This revolution will only take effect when all women become fully aware of their deplorable condition, and of the rights they have lost in society.”

Groups like the Society of Revolutionary Women were formed, and in 1793, outlawed and abolished by the Jacobin government. Then, the Napoleonic Code of 1804 reinforced French women’s status as second-class citizens.

And of course, then came the many conservative historians who had either an interest in downplaying the role of women, or whose privilege meant it was a question easily ignored. As Shirley Elson Roessler writes in her excellent Out of the Shadows: Women and Politics in the French Revolution, 1789-1795,

The topic of women’s participation in the French Revolution has generally received little attention from historians, who have displayed a tendency to minimize the role of women in the major events of those years, or else to ignore it altogether. In the nineteenth century those who did attempt to deal with the topic chose to approach it with an emphasis on individual women who had for some reason attained a degree of notoriety.

So you see that even a focus on someone like Charlotte Corday or Olympe de Gouges is a strategy that has been used to downplay the role of women in the broad fabric of the revolution. I’m pleased to see the historically-accurate presence of women in the Assassin’s Creed: Unity crowds, in the storming-of-the-palace scenario we were shown at E3—but the fact that women remain unplayable, as a hands-off role, as actors-but-not-protagonists, indicates that Ubisoft is taking a regressive step with Unity, not just for the Assassin’s Creed series, not just for the representation of women in videogames, but in representation of the women of the French Revolution.