'Dragon Age Absolution' and Rejecting the Master's Tools
Fantasy, magic, and not replicating systems of oppression.
Dragon Age: Absolution is an animated series based on the fantasy video game franchise of the same name by the company Bioware (now owned by Electronic Arts). It's set in the continent of Thedas, a magical land of elves, demons, and dragons. Absolution, in particular, centers on a ragtag group of thieves as they attempt an Ocean’s Eleven-style robbery of the Tevinter Imperium Chantry to steal a McGuffin called the Circulum Infinitus — something that will allegedly raise the dead.
Since this is a Dragon Age game, though, it's thematically about something far heavier, specifically about you cannot use the institutions and tools that maintain slavery to undo it. Protagonist Miriam is a formerly enslaved person who has to go back to her ex masters house in an attempt to steal the Circulum Infinitus. The story not only beautifully unpacks her processing of this trauma but rejects the slavers who want to change the world without transforming the institutions that empower them.
In other words, Dragon Age: Absolution rejects using the Master's Tools to fight against oppression.
What are the master's tools?
The saying "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" was first popularized by academic Audre Lorde in her seminal essay of the same name. The essay described an experience of being invited to a humanities conference and being one of the few Black lesbians there in an official capacity, specifically to speak on a panel about Blackness and queerness.
Lorde discussed in that piece how the tools of racist patriarchy (in this case overvaluing white panelists) could not be used to deconstruct it. As she writes: "[The master's tools] may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support."
Dragon Age: Absolution has a very similar theme with several characters who perceive themselves as freedom fighters, despite resorting to tactics that only end up reinforcing the oppressive system they benefit from. The first is Miriam's former "owner," Rezaren Ammosine, a Tevinter magister who perceives himself as "one of the good ones." He wants to use the Circulum Infinitus to resurrect his deceased slave Neb (Miriam's Brother). Neb is someone Rezaren perceives as family, despite his real family owning Neb and Miriam when he was a boy.
Rezaren believes that once he's reunited with these people, his former property, together they can do the work of "changing the system." "Ever since you left," he monologues to Miriam, "I've been rebuilding, trying to make things right again….I have risen through the ranks of the Imperial Chantry… By the Grace of the Maker, I will become the next Divine. And together, the three of us can make Tevinter a better place for everyone."
Yet this perspective is naive because it assumes that Rezaren (who has gained his power through slavery) will be able to do away with it through sheer force of will when everyone around him benefits from the institution, including him. Tevinter society is built around the militarization that comes with stopping slave revolts, and it's doubtful those in power will let this way of life go willingly.
Rezaren's mentality is the definition of metaphorical white saviorism (e.g., a privileged person's belief that they are the main protagonist in the fight against an injustice). Dragon Age doesn’t operate under the same notions of race, hence the use of the word metaphorical here. It's very clear how fickle this image of saviorism is the moment it meets any resistance from those Rezaren’s allegedly saving. He tries to reenslave Miriam once he learns she does not want to be a part of his “family.” "I was wrong….There can be no master without a slave, and no slave without a master."
We see here how when he has to deal with his alleged "family" members having agency, he discards their opinions. Rezaren is so wrapped up in his delusions of grandeur that he doesn't realize he is the villain. This is something the text calls out explicitly in a line of dialogue near the climax. "Are you really the last one to figure out that you're the villain?" a character mocks gleefully.
Another slaver who cannot grabble with the fact that she is the bad guy is the Knight-Commander of the Templar Order Tassia (the Dragon Age equivalent of a cop). Tassia is someone who believes in working to change things from "the inside." "Not everyone welcomes the Venatori," says Tassia of a Tevinter KKK parallel to someone who has lost everything to a hate crime perpetrated by this group. "In fact, some of us are working hard to free the Imperium from their influence."
Yet the text mocks this belief. Through a humiliating bit of dialogue, where Tassia claims not to be a "lapdog," she is immediately dismissed by Rezaren. She does not have any control over her superior, who does pretty much whatever the hell he wants. Tassia fails in her alleged goal of "changing the system," The series clarifies that one of her bigger duties is stopping slave revolts. If she wanted to subvert the system, she would leak information and resources to rebel cells, not try to support this brutal chain of command.
Lastly, there is Hira, someone from a well-off Tevinter family that was massacred by the Venatori for allegedly helping enslaved people. Hira doesn't want to support the system as much as burn it all down. She is resentful for her loss in station and at the system that punished her family for trying to do the right thing. "I hate Teventir," she vents. "This place hurt everyone I love, and I am going to make all of you pay for it. The good, the bad, you all deserve to burn."
Hira is willing to do anything to get her revenge, including reenslaving her lover Miriam, to get a chance to destroy the nation she now hates. She is doing all this underhandedness while working with the Red Templars, a genocidal group that wants to kill all mages — not exactly an emancipatory movement.
Like the other characters we have mentioned, Hira is a metaphorical white savior, in this case, a revolutionary one, who is deluded into thinking her way is different. She isn't working with the enslaved people she claims to care for. The one she interacts with, her lover Miriam, is literally a pawn she has no problem selling back into slavery. It's all about her feelings of revenge, and in the process, Hira resorts to the same system she purports to hate.
A radical conclusion
Through these examples, we see Dragon Age: Absolution skewer people who believe they can change the world using the same systems of oppression that constrain it. Whether they are a cop or politician working within the system or a radical resorting to the institution of slavery to advance their goals, these characters believe that the master's tools are awful, unless, of course, they are the ones using them.
It's refreshing to see a piece of media take this perspective because often, we get narratives extolling the virtues of working within the system. Texts like She-Hulk, Black Panther, and Falcon and the Winter Soldier lambaste characters for "going too far," but in Absolution, these upholders of the status quo are the villains. We are not meant to feel sorry for slavers who squash revolts — they are cannon fodder cut down by our protagonists without a second's hesitation.
This perspective is one we need more of, both on the Silver Screen and outside of it.
About the Creator
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