Still Distressed: Damsels in Distress, Part Three of Tropes vs. Women in Videogames

by Kristin Bezio

You can read Kristin’s reviews of Sarkeesian’s first two videos here.


The promise made to us at the end of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Videogames, Damsels in Distress, Part Two” was a look at the games that “get it right,” and at some games in which the female protagonist rescues the men. The first game Sarkeesian talks about is Super Princess Peach (2006), and she shreds it. Yes, Peach is the protagonist, but her powers are mood swings. I have to say, on this one, I have to go with Sarkeesian. Mood swings are not a super-power and no one, including the people (male, female, and other) who have them would really rather not. At least let the woman throw knitting needles at someone if you’re going to give her a gender-normative super-power. But let’s put my rant about Peach aside and get back to the video.

She points out – rightly so – that just swapping genders on a DID narrative doesn’t “fix” it. Her point is that the DID trope is ultimately more harmful to women than men because there is already a pervasive believe that women are damsels; to see a man in a victimized position does no social harm because men aren’t associated with that stereotype. I would argue that there are cases – particularly if the victim is typed as a gay man – in which the damsel-ization of a male character can be harmful.

I would also suggest that someone who needs rescuing isn’t automatically a damsel, which Sarkeesian seems to assume (maybe not, but that’s the impression I get from the videos). One can be both a victim and not a damsel – victims can also become heroes, as in Dragon Age, in which the Warden is arrested and imprisoned and then has the choice to rescue him/herself, or wait for others to come and rescue him. Lara Croft in the most recent Tomb Raider (more on that later!) is victimized and takes control back for herself. A damsel is helpless by definition – and someone can be a victim who isn’t helpless or hopeless or reliant entirely on others for personal salvation.

But back to the video. Sarkeesian next starts talking about hacks, which is interesting and probably worth a post in its own right, but doesn’t seem to belong here. Hacks are something that demonstrates fan response (hence worthy of discussion), not industry standards. I understand that she’s using it to make the point that very few games focus on female protagonists instead of DIDs, but hacks that simply reverse the trope or substitute the former DID as the hero aren’t really what I’m interested in seeing her critique. Her conclusion, however, is that just reversing the DID trope isn’t enough, and I’d have to agree. In fact, I’d like to see DID of any sort go away altogether. (Note: saving someone’s kid is not a DID trope because there’s a difference between a romance/sex object being saved and saving a kid. Just sayin’.)

And, unfortunately, now we’re back to the laundry-list style of analysis, which has been my least favorite part of this series. I understand that there are a LOT of videogames out there, and I also understand that there are a LOT of videogames that exploit the DID trope, but a list doesn’t really help to explain the problem that the trope is causing. It just says “Hey, look! A problem!” Besides, in this video, we were promised good examples, not just another list of games that do things poorly.

Sure, I think it’s worth pointing out that a lot of games now are using “irony” or “subversion” as a defense against rehashing the same old, tired DID trope. I don’t think that “irony” is a good defense against “I couldn’t think of a better plot so I’m going to ironize this one because I know it’s bad.” The game Fat Princess seems particularly horrible to me, because although I understand that the point is probably to comment on the unacceptable nature of fat-shaming and the way the media around us creates a false image of what a woman should look like that is overall probably unachievable (and possibly unhealthy), creating a game that focuses our attention on a fat princess yelling “Hungry!” doesn’t seem to me to be the way to go about that. (Although maybe I’m wrong, I haven’t played it.) (Side note: the clip from Cloudberry Kingdom reminds me of Shrek , which I LOVED, and although I haven’t played CK, either, it makes me like the game more, because that might actually BE parody in an effective way. Maybe.)

We also get to see some games that turn the trope in a different direction: Monkey Island and Braid , the first of which has the ostensible DID yell at the protagonist for wrecking her plan, the second of which, we discover, is the attempt of the protagonist to rescue a woman who not only doesn’t want to be rescued, but doesn’t need rescuing and may even be justified in her attempts to avoid him/us. But the only example Sarkeesian can give us of a game in which the female rescues herself is… made up? What about the most recent Tomb Raider, in which we are repeatedly (and I’m not that far yet) placed in a victimized position and then Lara gets herself out? What about Metroid? What about any number of instances in the Dragon Age series in which the Warden and Hawke (if female) fight their way out of trouble that they have landed themselves squarely in the middle of? What about No One Lives Forever? Or Remember Me? Or the female characters in Left 4 Dead and Gears of War III? Or Sheva Alomar in Resident Evil 5? Or perhaps the example I like the most, Alice, from American McGee’s Alice, who is so utterly objectified by both medicine and society that she goes insane and has to fight her way out of her own self-objectification? (Alice is an amazing game on so, so many fronts.)

Sarkeesian does take a moment to remark that just because a game has a DID plot focus doesn’t mean anything (positive or negative) about its gameplay or mechanics. Which makes me pause and say, “Okay… so what about gameplay and mechanics? These are games. Why aren’t you talking about gameplay and mechanics? I’d like to hear about how the gameplay and mechanics are contributing to – or taking away from – the efficacy or harmfulness of the DID trope.” Because that’s actually what’s been bothering me all along, and I just haven’t been able to put my finger on it until now.

The gameplay of Mario games isn’t sexist. It doesn’t focus on the DID trope. It doesn’t promote violence against women. It’s about jumping, collecting coins, committing turtle homicide, and crawling through pipes. Sure, the plot-focus is on rescuing the princess, and that could be improved, but the game itself – the play – isn’t about gender. Which is why millions of people of both genders have no problem enjoying its core fantasy of exploration. I’d argue that the gameplay in some games is harmful. Games that require you to assault women, or allow you to have sex with a prostitute, or encourage you as the player-character to abduct or otherwise victimize women… those are much more problematic than a series of cartoon plumbers whose end-objective is a DID.

A question the husband – a game designer – often asks is, “What are the verbs?” and I think that’s a very apropos question in this discussion. What are the verbs? In Mario games, the verbs are jump… and jump. Maybe a little fly. You jump on things to attack them, you jump on pipes to enter them, you jump over things, into things, around things… you get the idea. “Jump,” as a verb, is extremely gender neutral. Everybody jumps. A “shoot”-based game has the potential to be more problematic, depending on who or what is being shot at. If all the victims are women – especially sexualized ones – or even if all the women being shot at are sexualized, even if there are also men… that’s a problem. But it doesn’t have to be. “Shoot,” as a verb, is not inherently gendered, either, although society associates it more with men than women. But Lara Croft shoots. Samus Aran shoots. (They also jump, I would like to note.)

So here’s the thing. While I think that ultimately Sarkeesian is positively contributing to the discussions that are going on around gaming and gender, I also think that she’s doing all of us – industry professionals, gamers, and interested non-gaming-related parties – a disservice by giving us nothing more than a laundry-list of games and problems. Yes, this might serve as a good introduction to the concept of the DID or of gender criticism in games in general for the un-familiar with games or feminist criticism (or both), but it isn’t doing the kind of intensive, thought-provoking kind of work that I think is necessary for a more experienced and/or academic audience.

What I want to see is an examination of the trope, an in-depth discussion of a few games that explains not only how the trope manifests in that game, but – and here’s the really important part – why it is bad. Because I don’t think many people would argue that Peach isn’t a DID or that games don’t put women in refrigerators (sometimes literally). I just don’t think that most people – especially most male gamers and developers – understand why that’s a problem, on either an artistic or a social level. They see it as “just a story” in “just a game” and therefore don’t change the pattern because it doesn’t ever occur to them how harmful the perpetuation of a trope like DID can be.

So while it is important to recognize the trope in existence, it’s even more important to explain how it works, why it’s bad, and what can be done on an ideological – not just artistic – level to fix the problem. Because waving a red flag about and yelling “damsels!” doesn’t really solve the problem or even explain why damsels are a problem to begin with. Sarkeesian knows (obviously) why the DID trope is socially harmful, but the people perpetuating it clearly don’t get that, and that’s why it’s vital that if she wants to be understood as more than just an angry feminist who doesn’t understand games, she needs to explain why what she’s doing is important to gaming on both the artistic and social fronts. (That doesn’t, of course, mean the trolls will listen, but most developers and gamers aren’t actually trolls, and they might be interested in hearing feasible alternatives or at least a thoughtful explanation of why their tried-and-true trope is problematic.)

So my overall take on the series, and on the three DID episodes in particular: good impulse, inadequate execution, although not for lack of trying. And maybe Sarkeesian isn’t the person who’s going to do what needs to be done. Maybe she’s just going to get the proverbial ball rolling for those of us who do want to do more detailed criticism by getting the attention of the ravening hordes. And that’s okay (although kind of awful for her, since the hordes are no fun). But I wouldn’t recommend the series as a “good” example of what I want feminist game criticism to be, even if I think it’s good that she’s making them.

Comments (4)

[…] my review of the final installment of Tropes vs. Women in Videogames (Damsel in Distress, part three…. I’ve talked about Sarkeesian’s series before, both here and on TLF, and while I think […]

I’ve watched that video and have a lot of problems with Anita’s presentation of the case.

1. She absolutely omitted a lot of games which permit you to play as a female. Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Divinity II, XCOM, Civilization series, Skyrim, Morrowind, Oblivion, Neverwinter Nights, Wizardry, 99% of all MMORPGs, Fallout series, etc. To any experienced gamer, male or female, this will come off as insincere and biased.

2. I absolutely disagree with her conclusion from the previous video that all DID (even in case of saving your sister) is about possession, misogyny and domestic violence. She ascribes the very lowest motivations to men, effectively demonizing them. I have a younger sister. To tell me that for wanting to save her from a dangerous situation is somehow malevolent of me is extremely degrading to me as a man and insulting.

3. Anita focuses ONLY on violence against women, disregarding that in most games men are treated commonly as trash. Men are shot, killed, mutilated, maimed and killed in most of these games, yet a portrayal of just ONE woman being merely depowered is so crushing. What about male disposability present in our culture from millenia? Death of a man is almost nothing, and is almost always presented like that in games. When a woman dies, it is often a BIG DEAL.

I am writing this as a male who played female characters in RPGs for almost 25 years. When Anita makes no care to mention any of those games which make it possible I’m automatically suspicious of her agenda and stop believing her. It doesn’t serve anything good to omit the truth if it’s merely inconvenient.

So one woman getting shot = deeply entrenched patriarchal misogyny, but thousands upon thousands of men being slaughtered isn’t even worth mentioning?

I would suggest that she do a video on the disposable male next. Perhaps her videos might improve if she broadened her horizons a little bit, and got a smidgen of perspective.

I had heard of Anita when her first video had aired but after watching ot I was flabbergasted by the way she presented her video. It lacked critical research or any link to where she got her information from. I agree with the points she brought up but her presentation has constantly shown that she is not really looking for academia(she isn’t open to discussions, barely ever acknowledges the complaints on her videos, and makes wide sweeping generalizations) I have played games for years and while I often dismiss what I play because games to me are clearly not real life and as such I don’t expect females I meet in person to resemble games, I can understand that games like many things can affect our culture. My problem is there are many games(and the number is increasing) that are starting to move past the old tropes or reinvent the idea(tropes themselves are not inherently good or bad imo), there is something called Value Dissonance that she has yet to explore(western games and eastern games inherently hold different values), and she constantly cherry picks her pieces and will ignore in game context but this use the image out of context to fit her style.

I would love to watch a video that explores and discusses these points unfortunately Anita Sarkeesian is not the person and she is slowly going to hurt the overall message once media starts to really see her work dissected(since she claims these are supposed to be academic in nature they will eventually have to face multiple peer reviews)

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