Digital Damsels in Distress: A Simplified Version of a Real Problem in Gaming

by Kristin Bezio

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new readers for this post written in May! 2013! If you want to comment or share this, do so knowing Kristen is a feminist AND a game critic AND a game player AND an academic, so this is a critical analysis, because The Learned Fangirl’s tagline is “a critical look at pop culture and technology”!

So some months back, I posted about how I was “over” Anita Sarkeesian’s as-yet-non-existent series, Tropes vs. Women in Videogames. Well, now it exists. Two parts of an episode, in fact, focusing on the trope of the “Damsel in Distress” (Part one here.Part two here) Okay, so far, so good. I agree that videogames – and TV, and film, and books, and people – harp incessantly on this trope. Our culture is obsessed with it. Our fairy tales, our children’s stories, our myths and legends, and our popular media since time out of mind have locked princesses in towers, had daughters guarded by fire-breathing dragons, and placed women in harm’s way all so that they could be rescued by dashing young men in armor, on white horses, or in sexy sports cars.

And videogames are indeed among the most flagrant offenders. Part one looks at some of the “golden oldies” of the gaming industry, which are naturally problematic, but don’t seem to me to be any worse in the damsel-in-distress department than any other media of the 1970s and 1980s. While context doesn’t excuse all faults, I think in this case the games are as much a reflection of their time as they are perpetuating a harmful stereotype. I think the fact that games never really seem to have left the 1970s, ideologically speaking, is a much bigger deal than the fact that they started there. But that’s only one of my issues, especially since Sarkeesian points out in Part Two that the trope hasn’t stayed nicely in the past where it belongs.

Sarkeesian looks at a couple of problems. First, the tendency of games to focus on a male hero. True, and it’s something I’ve talked about here before when looking at box art for games. She points out that one of the Starfox titles even changed from a heroine to a hero, and then trapped the original heroine in crystal (her name is also Crystal … clever, eh?) for Starfox to rescue. Okay, yes, problem. Princess Peach (I’m going to restrain myself here) is also always needing Mario to rescue her, and usually in another castle. The Legend of Zelda is named for Zelda… who is also stuck somewhere, needing Link to come find her. And Princess Daphne from Dragon’s Lair… I’m not even going to go there, because I’d never stop. And yes, I agree that all these games are problematic.

But what I didn’t see was any attempt to find the nuance in these games. Nor was there an attempt to talk about the positives, and there was at least one really big one: Metroid, also developed in the 1980s, which featured a female hero who was both badass and not scantily clad.

Now on to Part Two.

It opens with a warning – because apparently in the twenty-first century, games contain such graphic and sexualized violence that Sarkeesian felt that a trigger and parental warning was necessary. Not a good sign, games industry.

Among the tropes that Sarkeesian identifies with the damsel-in-distress (DID) is the murdered woman (“woman in the refrigerator”) – wife, girlfriend, daughter – who has been so objectified that she has been reduced to an object. This has been made even more complicated by what Sarkeesian calls “the damsel in the refrigerator,” or the dead woman whose soul has to be rescued (honestly, if I heard “your murdered wife/girlfriend’s soul is trapped in hell and you must fight to free her” one more time …). The weirdest one of these is from Bionic Commando (2009), in which the dead wife in question has been incorporated into the hero’s arm. Not even Sarkeesian can keep a straight face at that one, and I can’t blame her.

If the DID is lucky, the revenge-motivator for the male hero is the result of a wife/girlfriend/daughter’s rape instead of a murder. “Lucky.” And sometimes, the hero has to kill the DID because she has been possessed or otherwise corrupted – mutilated, maybe, or turned into a vampire/zombie, or simply because she’s in the way of the hero killing the villain (what Sarkeesian calls the “Euthanized damsel”). Or in which the supposed DID is actually the primary villain, either of her own will or not – what Sarkeesian refers to as the use of the supernatural justification for domestic violence. While this may be a bit of an extreme take, I have to agree with Sarkeesian that these are a huge problem, especially because they are so prevalent. If we saw a similar prevalence of violence and victimization of male characters, it wouldn’t bother me so much, and some games do contain it: Gears of War 3, the Mass Effect series, the Dragon Age series.

One of the interesting, and problematic, claims that Sarkeesian makes about modern DID characters is that attempts to make them more complex while maintaining the trope is actually “all the more frustrating” than if they had been left two-dimensional. And while I agree that the continued presence of DID characters is infuriating, giving them attitude or making them more people and less objects cannot be a bad thing. It’s not enough, but it’s a step in a positive direction. DID characters who assist in their own rescue are similarly vexing to Sarkeesian, but, again, I would point out that at least they are now shown having some sort of agency.

I’m also not sure that developers are “throwing them in at the last minute to excuse their continued reliance on the damsel in distress.” I think they’re using a tried-and-true trope because it is effective. I don’t think they even think about the fact that DID characters might be annoying to a significant portion of the gaming demographic. I don’t think they think about it at all – I think they pick a narrative line that is comfortable, familiar, and safe. Because I know that my husband didn’t stop to consider the fact that Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite is a DID, or that I might find her constant need for rescuing irritating as a female gamer. And Elizabeth is one of those more complex DIDs – she is both victim and the most powerful thing in the game, and she is still a DID. Do I give Irrational credit for making her complex? Sure. But she is still a DID, and that does still bother me (as Sarkeesian says, one of the problems of systemic misogyny is that it can be unintentional).

But, as with earlier games, they aren’t that different from what we see in other media. That’s not an excuse, of course, but the TvW series doesn’t mention that. It seems as though videogames are the sole – or at least the worst – perpetrators of the DID trope. Although really, that’s not an excuse. All forms of media should be trying to escape – or at least not rely so heavily on – the DID trap.

I agree, though, that simply making a DID more complex isn’t enough. Nobody wants to play a Commander Shepard who needs saving – and if you play a female Shepard (known in the community as femShep, as opposed to manShep), she doesn’t. In fact, she saves everyone else, male, female, or other. But femShep is enormously popular, so much so that BioWare put her on (okay, on the back of) the collector’s edition box. And not just with women – male gamers play femShep, too, just as they play Tomb Raider and Metroid games.

Another of Sarkeesian’s valid points is that when the core mechanic of a game is violence, that violence has to be against someone or something. And, perhaps more importantly, this means that violence is the primary means of player interaction in a game, so if the developer wants the player to interact with a female figure, the first form of interaction is violence. Now there are a lot of games that have come to include conversation options in addition to violence – BioWare games, Bioshock Infinite, and Heavy Rain all spring to mind – or that have alternate mechanics, like Dishonored or Deus Ex, which include non-lethal options.

Ultimately, I’m much happier with Part Two than I was with Part One – I think that where Sarkeesian is trying to go is where we need to go as critical players and viewers, as consumers of all popular media, not just games. But, as with Part One, I want to see more about the full context of female depiction in games. I want to see not just the most flagrant examples of DID characters, but those who partially and fully eschew the label as the central point of the game – Samus Aran, femShep, Lara Croft, Elizabeth, Emily. I want to see the games that begin with a DID trope and explode it, to show examples of the trope being rejected within major industry titles (not just small-scale indie games that aren’t going to be popular). She promises to examine these in Part Three, along with the “dude-in-distress” role reversal.

Sarkeesian’s message – that women should be more than objects – is true, but in the series she seems to reinforce that trope as precisely what female characters are. And pointing at something and identifying it isn’t the most productive way to get it eliminated; instead, I want to see what Part Three has to offer in the way of positive depictions, but also to see a really detailed examination of how these women both fit and defy the DID trope. The biggest problem I have with the TvW series thus far is that it is so concerned about its politics that it stops being about game criticism and becomes a laundry-list of “this is bad,” “this is also bad,” and “this is really bad,” which diminishes its own credibility because of its one-sidedness.

Yes, these things are bad, also bad, and really bad, and I complain about many of them when I play the games myself. But I also recognize the good things that some of these games are trying to do, as well. To dismiss Gears of War 2 as misogynist simply because Dom shoots his catatonic (and mortally infected, which Sarkeesian did not mention) wife does not mean that the whole game is sexist. In fact, it contains just as many victimized male characters (more, even) than female characters, and Gears of War 3 includes two playable female heroes in its campaign who most definitely do not need rescuing. What I’d rather see is a detailed examination of a series, a single game, or a development house that can do justice to both its negatives and its positives.

Ultimately, I’m starting to get a little fed up not simply with Sarkeesian (with whom I’m actually more pleased than I was at the release of Part One, and whom I hope will continue to improve in my estimation with Part Three), but with a lot of voices in the gender-and-videogames arena. My problem is not that I think they’re wrong, but that I think they’re deliberately exploiting the worst offenders and characterizing them as the “norm.” Now I do think that the “norm” in the gaming industry is misogynist, or at least oblivious to gendered issues, but I don’t think it’s quite as raging as it is depicted by the loudest members of the feminist camp.

I do understand, too, that yelling and screaming is only really effective if it has shock-value, and that we need to point at the worst in order to improve the best, but I also feel that we should be acknowledging and rewarding progress. We should praise games that allow us to pick the gender of our protagonist and don’t appreciably change the way the game’s narrative works (Dragon Age, Fable, Mass Effect). We should praise (and buy!) games that focus on female heroes (Remember Me, Tomb Raider, Metroid, Mirror’s Edge). We should look for games that create equality in gendered terms, whether on the hero side or the victim side (Gears of War 3, Halo Reach, Left 4 Dead).

I don’t think that feminism – in gaming or in the real world – is dead, and I don’t think we’ve arrived, even in “the Western world,” at gender equality (my god, look at the crap going on in the news media right now…). But I also don’t think we’re still living in the proverbial dark ages, and it’s important to support those games, tv, movies, and other media that see that. After all, Hunger Games (for all its flaws) and Game of Thrones has some damn powerful women, and both have been wildly successful. And that’s the message that we as consumers need to send to all the media – that we want to see women who aren’t just “complicated” DIDs, but legitimate heroes in their own right.

Related Posts

Comments (17)

I think the strength of the second episode the first portion, where which was pretty much Sarkeesian saying, “here’s a trope; here are a bunch of examples showing how common it” over and over again. While one can come to different conclusions (I have mixed feelings about Sarkeesian’s), I think the first portion makes a compelling point that these things really are pervasive and maybe something should change.

[…] that YouTube has restored Damsels in Distress Part 2, I do actually have something to say about it over at The Learned Fangirl. There are other voices out there, as well, including Destructoid, which labels the video […]

[…] Be sure to check out Kristin’s follow up to this post, “Digital Damsels in Distress: A S… […]

I think I’m less bothered by the criticism because she went out of her way to make an even stronger point about it being ok to like media with issues in it in this episode. She also promised us an episode talking about more positive games and games that “flip the script” as she put it.

I’m not personally a fan of damsel or dude in distress or fridging of any sort. I think both narrative techniques are overplayed, trite, and lazy on the part of the writer. In real life people certainly need the support and love of others and people certainly do die tragically, but these are not the most common or the most interesting aspects of our interpersonal relationships by far. Most people have their own agency and only make important changes in their lives when they choose to. You can love and support them, but you can’t make changes for them. I’d like to see more stories exploring that as a theme and the inherent tragedy that’s often built into it.

I completely agree that her opening point that “criticism is not dislike” is a good one – and she uses it in both DID videos. I didn’t comment on it because it seems to be a thing that she just points out (a good thing!) in all her TvW series.

My biggest issue with the series is its “laundry-list” nature – I know she’s doing a positive one next, and I’m hopeful it will be more than a laundry list, but what I really want to see is more than listing. I want to actually see people (and maybe not Sarkeesian, but someone else will do this) talking about WHY and HOW the DID trope is harmful. It’s one thing to say “It’s everywhere!” but it’s more productive to say that “This trope is harmful because…” And perhaps Maddy Myers’s recent piece is the answer, insofar as it points out that everyone can’t do everything, and what Sarkeesian is doing should ultimately be put in the + column (it should), but to me the laundry-list approach isn’t productive on its own. Combined with more explanation (where you do a “case study” kind of thing), it can tell us a lot, but just listing “Here are many bad things” doesn’t seem particularly helpful to me.

But that’s not to say that I think she shouldn’t make the series, even if it IS a laundry-list. She should. It’s her series, she can do what she wants with it. And a laundry-list is better than nothing by a long shot. I was just hoping for more.

Well read half way though and stopped couldn’t take it this become go Anita go Anita rather fast her videos are crap, she bashes literally any game she loves playing DiD herself, oh poor me save me fund my project because I got trolled, video games are made for u to go play have fun and act like a child because guess what its fun to trash talk someone and 5mins later your chatting with them

[…] too damn sick of dealing with this kind of thing. Last night I got a comment notification from TLF on my last Anita Sarkeesian post that seems to echo some of this in a small […]

I completely disagree that these videos were positive or compelling at all. In most examples of poorly portrayed women, she lacks context and research. Even worse is that she will strip a female character of EVERY positive trait if that character has ever been a victim, which is actually sexist, in my opinion. Everyone is a victim sometimes, men and women alike. Even in games where both male and female characters are victimized equally, she will dismiss the game completely simply because the female character was victimized at all.

If she encounters a female character that surprisingly does fit into her extremely narrow and impossible standards, such as Zia from Bastion, she then essentially labels the character as boring.

If a female character is remotely attractive, she will be dismissed even if she has never been portrayed as weak or the victim at all, such as Bayonetta. She claims ‘undressing a woman’ is objectification, yet I’m sure lesbian couples would disagree.

She also poses her complaint against the female character transformed into a monster that must be killed, comparing it to actual domestic violence and being excused from striking a woman because she has ‘lost control’. I grew up in a home of domestic violence, and it was my mother who would constantly physically attack my stepfather, and if he defended himself against her, even non-violently through restraint, she would then claim he was beating her. If a female is attacking a male, the male has a right to defend himself, anything else is blatantly sexist. It’s this sexism that causes female-on-male violence to be so grossly dismissed in court, and that sickens me on a personal level.

She thinks that any female character who is dead for reasons of tragedy and motivation is being objectified, when many male characters in backgrounds are dead for the same reason. In showing that a man was attached to his wife or daughter and they were killed, a writer is often trying to convey the strongest senses of loss–those you love romantically, and those you love paternally. These two forms of love are an evolutionary function, and deeply engrained. Seeing as the majority of the population is straight, naturally a lover’s death will usually be a female.

In conclusion, I cannot take Anita Sarkeesian seriously and I feel her logic is incredibly flawed, inconsistent, sexist, poorly-researched, and unoriginal.

“Seeing as the majority of the population is straight, naturally a lover’s death will usually be a female.”

The statistics of this statement are totally reasonable if you assume that all protagonists are male. Since more than half the population is female, I’m not seeing that as making any sense at all.

I think that while Baconmoose is right that most of Sarkeesian’s “criticism” is reductive, Eva’s right that simply saying that “Because the heroes are men, most of the victims will be women” assumes the kind of problems that we see in rape culture. Why can’t the motivating victim be a brother? A son? A friend? Why does motivation have to be based on revenge in the first place? What about general injustice? Shouldn’t we be able to fight crime and iniquity without specifically personal motivations?

While I do think that Sarkeesian fails at really making her point well – especially to people who don’t already agree with her, while those of us who already see it can’t help but nod along with her – she’s not wrong about the problems she’s identifying, and we shouldn’t just ignore the problems because we don’t like the way we’re being told about them.

I also realized after posting my last comment that since Baconmoose was personally touched by male-on-female domestic violence, I was even more surprised by their response. The pattern of male-on-female violence that Sarkeesian was tracking in these games encourages people to believe exactly the “women is always victim” idea that caused Baconmoose’s family so much pain.

I don’t know about everyone else who discusses these kinds of topics, but I view most of them as being a train wreck for men and women alike. Creating and promoting gendered stereotypes like these games are isn’t helping anybody. 🙁

(Oops, meant “Baconmoose was personally touched by female-on-male domestic violence” can’t even type it right *sigh)

I realize this thread is really old now and I apologize for revisiting it months later. I hadn’t really expected any responses so I didn’t intend to come back and check. I just want to address some of the points. I may not check again, seeing as I forgot to last time and all.

Anyway, yes I agree that the majority of protagonists in video games are male. This is likely because the majority of developers are men, and people generally will want to tell a story from a perspective they are familiar with. Furthermore, it wasn’t until only recently that female gamers started to reach the half-way point of the demographic. (They are still technically the minority)

I am not opposed to having more female protagonists (in the cases where a protagonist isn’t a creatable character that is gender neutral), but my point was that the loss of a female loved one isn’t due to sexism in my opinion. I don’t think the abundance of male developers is due to sexism either, it wasn’t until recently that women took an interest in it anyway. (On a larger scale). The reason it’s likely a girlfriend instead of a brother is because that bond is often stronger in the long term. You love your siblings, but NOT the same way you love your spouse or your children.

As for the domestic violence situation, you may interpret it as Anita saying ‘women are not always victims’, but I find it to be a contradiction, saying ‘women are not always victims’ and then blatantly stating that men hurting women is always wrong. Those statements are mutually exclusive. I am also referencing a SPECIFIC statement she made in her video about domestic violence, in saying it’s wrong to portray a man hurting a woman because she’s ‘lost control’ because that’s the excuse men use to beat their wives, when in MY experience, the wife losing control causes HER to beat her HUSBAND. If all Anita had said and demonstrated was ‘women are not always victims’ I would have whole-heartedly agreed, but she specifically condemned the portrayal of men defending themselves against women by comparing it to domestic abuse.

I hope that clears some things up.

I’m happy to read some thoughtful criticism of her series. I was excited to watch the first installment, but I was really disappointed for many of the reasons already stated here. Also, I don’t understand who her audience is: is she trying to reach gamers that aren’t already on board with her perspective? She talks like a sociology grad student, which is fine if you are trying to address other academics, but not at all helpful if you want actual people to understand you. Her language is often impenetrable, and her arguments too often are that everything is horribly sexist, including Ico because the female character is being led around. I think she does a good job of pointing out the prevalence of sexist themes in games, but spending over an hour to catalogue the damsel in distress theme is overkill.

[…] part three) went up on TLF. I’ve talked about Sarkeesian’s series before, both here and on TLF, and while I think the TvW series is improving, it still leaves me wanting […]

[…] a little if only because it’s since been dated by the release of Sarkeesian’s videos (Post #2, Post #3, Post #4) and I’d like to see people follow the conversation, not react to the […]

[…] a little if only because it’s since been dated by the release of Sarkeesian’s videos (Post #2, Post #3, Post #4)  and I’d like to see people follow the conversation, not react to the […]

Leave a comment