In defence of Dragon Age’s Sera

For Gaming Month, Kath Rella explores the complexities behind one of Dragon Age’s most infamous characters: Sera.


Sera; a polarising presence in Bioware’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. The lesbian anti-elf is rude, crude and thoroughly argumentative. I’ll be honest, during my first playthrough, Sera and I did not get along. Sure, she made me chuckle on occasion, but in truth, her only real contribution was a War Table operation that awarded the ‘Jar of Bees’ grenade.

If Mass Effect’s Mordin is, to quote Kelly Chambers, “like a hamster on coffee”, then Sera is like a chimpanzee on cocaine. She may play pranks and have fun, but wind her up a little too much, and a vicious, sadistic personality emerges. This is no clearer than during her personal quest, The Verchiel March. Growing frustrated with the Inquisitor’s persistence in questioning a nobleman, Sera snaps and brutally beats him to death, hurling obscenities as she does so.

On that first playthrough, my relationship with Sera died with the noble. I chastised her for her actions. She disapproved. Indeed, “Sera Disapproves” was a regular notification as I continued my adventures throughout Ferelden and Orlais. I can’t say I cared much. I had Varric, Iron Bull, Dorian and Blackwall to be pally with, and Josephine Montiliyet to romance. I didn’t need Sera, so she was welcome to mope about her room in the tavern, occasionally ranting about whatever was grinding her gears this time.

Indeed, “Sera Disapproves” was a regular notification as I continued my adventures throughout Ferelden and Orlais.

There is everything to dislike about Sera. She’s outwardly racist to Dalish elves, antagonistic to any form of authority, seems incapable of taking anything seriously and has her head tightly lodged in her own backside. It’s no wonder that she draws the ire of both in-game characters and real-life players. Sera has been dismissed as yet another angry lesbian trope by some. She’s been labelled a transphobe by others, due to a three-word comment during the Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts quest. And, for many, she’s just bloody annoying.

I started a second playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition shortly after I finished my first ever playthrough of Dragon Age 2. On this occasion, I had decided from the start to romance Cullen. However, I also resolved to get along better with Sera. After all, every character has their own little cutscene when their approval is high enough, and I had not seen any of Sera’s before. So I humoured her; I ignored her racist comments about Dalish elves, I encouraged her to kill the nobleman (he was a prick, to be fair) and generally supported her in everything she said. Lo and behold, I got the ‘Pranks’ cutscene, and later the ‘Cookies’ cutscene.

And you know what? I understood her.

Sera is an outcast. She’s from the Denerim Alienage, which anybody who has played the City Elf Origin in DA:O will know is not a very nice place. She was brought up by a well-meaning, but a deeply irresponsible woman whose misguided attempts to impress Sera resulted in Sera believing people hated her because she was an elf. This girl has not had a happy life. The “friends” that she speaks of are nothing more than a loosely connected bunch of criminals, most of whom she only knows through hearsay. Her childish behaviour could very well stem from the fact that she hasn’t even had a real childhood. Perhaps most tellingly, she even states that she is not used to acceptance.

Perhaps most tellingly, she even states that she is not used to acceptance.

Of course, her personality doesn’t win many people over. In the game, only Iron Bull and Blackwall give her a fair shot. Cassandra struggles to reconcile with Sera’s criminal past, Solas dislikes her because she’s turned away from elven customs, Varric merely tolerates her, and Vivienne is outright cruel towards her. Yet Sera muddles along. Despite her fears, she sticks with the Inquisition proving herself braver than even she gives herself credit for. When confronted with hostility, she responds in kind as a form of defence. She is simply someone desperately searching for a place to belong in the world.

I may not condone everything she says and does, but I sure as hell get it. As someone who grew up in an environment where my bisexuality is considered a deviance worthy of hell itself, how could I not appreciate a girl who has been taught that being an elf is worthy of hatred? Her racism towards the Dalish may rub many the wrong way, but let us not kid ourselves that the Dalish are a welcoming people. Hawke is never anything more than a “shem” to the same clan that may have given us the Dalish Warden.

Oh, I understand the history and the Dalish have every reason to be hostile towards the humans, but they’re quick to turn on their own as well. The clan encountered in Inquisition will not even trade with a Dalish Inquisitor until trust is earned, purely due to the Inquisitor’s association with a human organisation. The Inquisitor can even express their fear that Clan Lavellan will not welcome back the “Herald of Andraste”. Given the Dalish’s evident dislike of City Elves, Sera would most certainly not be a welcome presence at one of their camps even if she could behave herself.

On my third playthrough, I romanced Sera. It may very well be my favourite romance in any Bioware game. Sure, when playing Dalish elf it’s hard to reconcile with Sera’s intolerance following the events at the Temple of Mythal. However, her decision to end a relationship with a Dalish elf seems as much born out of her own low self-esteem as she admonishes herself for not being “elfy enough”. Sticking with it, though, and you experience a mixture of both fun and tender moments.

It may very well be my favourite romance in any Bioware game.

Again, we see that emotional fragility during the quest A Girl Who Wants for Nothing, when Sera learns that the Inquisitor has told everyone about their relationship. Describing it as the greatest gift she has ever received, you realise that this is someone who likely thought the Inquisitor would be too embarrassed to make their romance public. I can’t help but relate to that. Sera’s speech when she admits her feelings for you is surprisingly heartwarming, and her proposal during the Trespasser DLC seems a perfect conclusion to her character arc. Like myself, Sera is somebody who never expected to find love, and now that she has she is loathed to part with what she has.

Other small traits reveal themselves during gameplay. When Iron Bull jokes with Sera about sleeping her way to the top, one of Sera’s possible responses is to angrily snap back that “you don’t talk piss about what matters”. Such a response is somewhat humbling when the Inquisitor is rarely able to criticise anybody else for their treatment of Sera. In fact, during the aforementioned Girl Who Wants for Nothing quest, Dorian labels her an “imp”, Vivienne is her usual bitchy self, and both Cassandra and Solas express disapproval.

Another criticism of Sera are the questions of whether she was transphobic. The basis for this accusation comes during the Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts quest at the Winter Palace when Sera, among other criticisms of the Orlesian nobility, glibly comments “he’s a she”. Coming during a brief barrage of complaints, it does seem damning, and many a forum or blog post has been made criticising its inclusion.

Of course, I freely admit I am not best-placed to judge this comment. I’m a cis woman, who in all honesty, would struggle to define what it feels like to be a woman. Similarly, I wouldn’t be able to explain bisexuality to someone. Because I lack the experiences of trans people, it’s entirely possible that, while intending no malice, I have made a stupid, potentially hurtful comment myself.

When the question is whether Sera is transphobic, I’m not convinced that she is. Her best friend, in-game, other than possibly the player-character, is Iron Bull. One of the Bull’s best friends is Krem, a trans man from Tevinter. Iron Bull is fiercely defensive of Krem and supportive of him. It seems unlikely that Bull and Sera would get along if Sera were openly transphobic.

At worst, her comment might be indicative of her own ignorance, as any unintentionally offensive remark I might make would be indicative of mine. I’m sure most of us have encountered a non-bigoted individual who has made a hurtful comment. Sera considers herself stupid, and she does tend to oversimplify complicated issues. Her remark could be symptomatic of this mindset.

It could also be related to her distaste for hypocrisy. While Leliana and Solas revel in the great Orlesian “game”, Sera finds the whole thing a perverse lie. Given how DA:I portrays Orlesian society, it is not hard to believe that a trans noble in Orlais would belittle another trans person of “lesser stock”. We see a similar hypocrisy in the way they brand commoners and elves as violent savages, yet are all too keen to beat their servants and send peasants to their deaths in pointless wars.

Or perhaps it was an oversight by Bioware themselves; a mistake missed in tens of hours of recorded dialogue? There is no reason to believe Bioware itself is transphobic. The inclusion of Krem, a sympathetic character, is a testament to Bioware’s desire to be as inclusive as possible. They might not always handle it well; some of the Inquisitor’s possible responses when discovering Krem is trans reads like a list of what not to ask a trans person. I have pondered whether Bioware, knowing that the majority of players have little to no experience of trans people, inserted those questions so Krem could answer on behalf of trans people? A little presumptuous or muddled, perhaps, but I have no doubt the intentions were honourable.

They might not always handle it well; some of the Inquisitor’s possible responses when discovering Krem is trans reads like a list of what not to ask a trans person.

When you look at the wonderful people involved in Dragon Age: Inquisition, there is no question they want to make the world a better, more inclusive place. Alix Wilton Regan (female British Inquisitor), Robyn Addison (Sera), Jennifer Hale (Krem), Allegra Clark (Josephine), Greg Ellis (Cullen) and Patrick Weekes (lead writer) have all used their platforms to speak out for the rights of LGBTQ+ people, refugees and others disadvantaged in society.

If we’re only considering the character, however, I don’t see any further evidence of Sera’s transphobia. One silly comment aside, she never voices such thoughts again. Given that Sera’s character arc is also one of personal growth, it’s entirely possible that if she did hold prejudices at the beginning, they have faded in time. Depending on your Inquisitor’s race, actions and class, Sera can start to put aside prejudice towards elves and mages.

Having existed in a bubble where everything was simple if you weren’t trying to “waste your day on it”, when taken outside her comfort zone Sera does learn a level of tolerance to things she previously disliked, feared or just didn’t understand. By Trespasser, she’s even more considerate towards an elven Inquisitor’s religious beliefs; a vast improvement over her response to the Temple of Mythal.

Sera isn’t just another angry lesbian. She’s a multi-layered character who requires patience to understand. In some respects, I think she is one of the best-written characters in Bioware games, and one of the few where we can follow their growth in a realistic fashion across a single instalment. Furthermore, I like her because although her sexuality is established, it is not the only thing that makes her notable as the length of this post demonstrates. Sexuality is a relatively minor part of her personality. I prefer LGBTQ+ characters where the focus is drawn to their character, actions and abilities rather than who they bed.

Sera is Sera, and though it took a while, that works for me. She’s also a dragon-slaying machine with her focus ability, and seriously, who can’t dig that? Sebastian in DA2 was rubbish at it.

 

Follow Kath (@Kathrella) on Twitter.

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