Back in January 2019, Patrick Weekes (now Lead Writer on Dragon Age) made a comment about catgirls. Soon, he was swamped in tweets about whether he was creating a catgirl character for Dragon Age 4. Sadly, Weekes clarified he had been talking about Catra from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and had no plans to add a similar trope to the Dragon Age world of Thedas.

However, I was puzzled at the time as, in my opinion, there already was a catgirl (or rather, catwoman) in the Dragon Age universe: Isabela.

The cover of Dragon Age: Those Who Speak, showing Isabela seated at a table. Dragon Age: Those Who Speak, written by Alexander Freed and David Gaider, 2013.If you’re not familiar with the sea-faring rogue Isabela, firstly, why not? She is one of the standout characters in the series, having originally appeared in Dragon Age: Origins as an NPC, before becoming a companion/possible love interest for Hawke in Dragon Age II: The Game With No Subtitle. Her adventures continued in The Silent Grove, a spin-off comic following Alistair as he, Varric, and Isabela investigate his family’s spotty history.

The whole notion of catgirls can be problematic, so it’s important to differentiate which kind of catgirl we’re talking about when it comes to Isabela. A common catgirl trope is the “moe,” young (and often unnervingly sexualised) catgirl of anime, complete with physical cat features. Think Nekopara, a visual novel video game about Nekos, cat-human hybrid girls, who literally have tails, have feline ears, and are domesticated by humans. They are treated as cutesy pets/companions, reliant upon their “masters.”

It’s hard not to see the sexism bleeding through this portrayal of catgirls.

Yet on the other hand, there is the more empowered “catwoman” trope. They personify the behaviours we often associate with cats: playful yet aloof, strong, seductive, and independent. Isabela falls firmly into this category.

It’s important to show your workings, so below I’ve identified common traits of this type of catgirl and how Isabela fits into this mold.

Agility

Like all good felines, Isabela is agile and elegant (mostly). Be it sauntering past an open-mouthed Hawke or dealing death to an unwitting merc, Isabela executes every move perfectly. She is beauty and she is grace, and she’ll stab you multiple times in the face.

“Because I Want To” Attitude

Isabela may understand social norms exist, but they live somewhere far, far away from her and she has little time for them. Isabela, like all good rogues and cats, takes what she wants when she wants, be that a ship or a religious artifact that accidentally starts a war (whoops).

Seductive & Playful

OK, Isabela’s sexuality could have been reduced to a very male gazey portrayal (i.e. portraying women as purely objects of desire for heterosexual men), but let’s take a look at that. Sure, her outfit might seem a little impractical, but Isabela is a character who’s sex-positive and likes her body. That’s not a bad thing and, as much as I love Aveline, I kind of wish she’d get off Isabela’s case and stop trying to shame her.

In fact, her flirtations with other companions (and her obsession with Varric’s chest hair) are part of Isabela’s playful nature, as well as forming part of her charm offensive. She often teases Anders, hinting at a past tryst, or flirts with Fenris while guessing the colour of his underwear. With the still-naive Merrill, Isabela is protective and assigns her the nickname of Kitten (a catwoman-in-training). Aveline, the most ardently law-abiding companion, falls into conflict with Isabela, the irreverent and free-spirited rogue, on many occasions. Isabela’s attempts to defuse/exacerbate their tension (by calling Aveline “Big Girl”) do not help matters. However, their interactions did have an interesting impact on fans, helping to launch a (now Hugo-nominated) shipping frenzy about her and Isabela.

Isabela’s interactions are cheeky, if not always appreciated by the party. During the quest “No Rest for the Wicked,” Isabela asks Hawke to strike her in order to deceive another character. If Hawke expresses reluctance, Isabela asks, “Come on, haven’t you ever wanted to slap me? Just a little?”

If present, the other companions give some very similar responses:

Aveline: Absolutely.
Fenris: Yes.
Anders: Yes.
Varric: Yes.
Merrill: Yes… wait, what are we voting on?
Sebastian: Is that a trick question?

Hidden Claws

So, Isabela is effortlessly charming, especially when she wants something. But beneath that bravada, Isabela is dangerous and quick with her daggers. During your first quest with Isabela, she suddenly skewers one of the mercs you’re negotiating with, to Hawke’s (and the player’s) surprise. One minute you’re bantering with bandits, the next Isabela has embroiled you in a fight to the death. Just as quickly, she’s back to business as usual as if nothing happened, even though she’s literally covered in blood.

Cautiously Keeps You at Paw’s Length

Much like the mythical cat belly fur few humans are deemed worthy enough to touch, Isabela does have a soft and vulnerable side. However, she makes it very clear that while she enjoys your company, Isabela really doesn’t need you or your attention. After spending the night with her, Isabela says thanks for the good time, and then tells you to jog on. Eventually, Isabela may warm to you, but she’s cautious—her love is a privilege, not a right.

Brings Unwanted Presents

Namely, the Qunari to Kirkwall.

So there we have it, case closed, no further questions will be taken at this time.


OK, maybe a little more.

Catgirls, in appearance and behaviour, are employed as an idealised version of playful, cute, and/or attractive women, often ones who can be easily tamed. Think the Persocoms from the anime Chobits, or the worryingly subservient Nekos from Nekopara. Recently, Catra’s appearance in the new She-Ra animated series reminded me that other types of catgirls exist, embodying the independent and forthright traits we also associate with our feline overlords.

Isabela has more in common with Catra than the anime/manga-style moe catgirls. Though still a kind of trope, Isabela’s personality plays a vital role, one that works well in Dragon Age II. Though Aveline, Anders, Fenris, Sebastian, and Merrill all had A Greater Purpose™ to pursue, their unshakeable dedication to these beliefs could have made the game feel overly earnest and lacking in moral complexity. But the Dragon Age universe has always benefitted from a pinch of irreverence to undercut the idea that heroes and companions are automatically “the good guys,” prompting the player to question their assumptions.

Isabela provides the perfect foil to the dour seriousness, poking fun at the brooding companions and promoting the message that life is to be enjoyed—that maybe it can be simpler than we let ourselves think it is. Admittedly, Isabela’s lack of thinking ahead can cause her own problems, but her greatest achievement as a character is showing that dealing with a difficult past isn’t just about surviving, but living.

Isabela may not be a “catgirl” in the strictest sense, but she is definitely a catwoman, one that blesses the Dragon Age universe with fun, depth, and an amazing obsession with big boats.