So, recently I watched the first of a series of videos from Anita Sarkeesian talking about tropes in video games. The first one is actually part 1 of a two-part series discussing the trope of the “Damsel in Distress”. Part 1 is simply looking at early games, and part 2 will look at some more recent examples. As Anita has become a divisive and controversial figure, many response videos have come out as a reply to her video. Some of them I think miss the point, but others I think make legitimate claims against how she is presenting the information.
For one, by not allowing rating or commenting she is closing down the ability for people to discuss the issue. Which does turn in to her kind of preaching at people instead of having an open and honest discussion with other people that might make them think about their view of the world. Yes, trolls gonna troll, but you do not have to engage with them. In some ways by not allowing commenting you are feeding into their opinions of you.
Second, I do agree that I think she does not delve quite deeply enough into the issue. She points out examples and explains in fairly simple terms why it is problematic, but media criticism is not and should not be simple. There are many contributing factors to look at which each individual story to talk about why it is problematic. You also need to understand the whole story that is being told to talk about each iteration.
There are other things, but those are the big two in my opinion and David and I have been discussing them at length lately. So we decided it was time to do our own post or posts more specifically. We each brought a different perspective to the table about the problems with the damsel in distress. The way I have chosen to deal with it is bringing up some of the questions that came to mind after watching Anita’s original video as well as watching some subsequent follow up videos arguing against her premise. David will get his post up tomorrow. So follow me as we journey down the rabbit hole.
Why is the Damsel in Distress trope problematic?
I know this is a loaded question and I am going to try and answer it to the best of my ability. One of the things I would like to explore is the idea that it is problematic for the representation of both men and women, although in very different ways. Part of the reason the trope in general is problematic is based on my belief that media is often a reflection of culture and can reveal larger held beliefs of people. Now obviously creators of video games come from all over the world with different backgrounds, but it still is a larger reflection of thoughts that could be considered a problem for society as a whole.
The problem from the perspective of the women is that there is a subtle message that you need a big strong man to rescue you. A good example of how this problem can become persistent is a t-shirt some friends gave me. Now I do love this shirt because I love Mario and actually kind of like Princess Peach (although my favorite game of Princess Peach is Super Mario Bros. 2 where she is a playable character). The shirt has a picture of Princess Peach on the front and is pink and white and really cute, but then on the back at the shoulders it has the phrase “waiting to be rescued”. My first thought is are you kidding me!
So as a woman I am supposed to sit around “waiting to be rescued” by the man – excuse me! I am the hero of my own story and yes we help each other out and sometimes I need other people to help me, but I am not just sitting around doing nothing waiting for others to come along and rescue me. What kind of message is that to tell to young girls? You are nothing without a man with you, you need a man to protect you, etc.
There is actually a great moment in Final Fantasy X where Yuna, who as a summoner constantly has guardians with her for protection, rescues herself. She had the power to do something about her situation and she did it. We have a society where nearly 1 in 5 women have been victims of sexual violence. Sexual violence is all about power over another person and often the reason you can commit such acts is you do not see the women as a thing to be respected, but as a thing to be used. This comes more from the oversexualizing of women in media, but the damsel in distress trope does not help show women that they can take control of their own lives.
So I really think the trope is not just problematic for women, but men as well. It comes back to the idea that men are supposed to be the protectors. They are supposed to be able to take care of their women and keep them safe. This puts a lot of pressure on guys to be strong and be the bread winners, to not show weakness. Especially in the society now-a-days where so many people do not have jobs, what does that do to a man’s self esteem when he loses his job and is no longer able to take care of his family?
Now I have seen this from personal experience: marriages which have ended because the wife started making more money than the husband and became in a way a more important person in the business circles that they ran in. He used to be the big dog, but circumstances changed and he wasn’t anymore and it took a toll on him. Now the fact that he could not handle it is still kind of his problem, but societally I thing we push guys to feel that way. We give these unrealistic expectations, instead of talking about being partners we have all these ideas of the man being the rescuer. They come in and save the day.
So there is a basic run down of the problems with the damsel in distress trope, but if you look at the dynamics between the representation of women and men there is a power difference involved. Men are supposed to be strong and protective, women are supposed to wait. Men in the situation appear to hold the power, it is not like Mario shows up to the castle and finds Princess Peach stepping out saying hey glad you came for me, but I took care of it we’re good. There is more I could say, but I want to finish answering the rest of the questions. If I have not mentioned earlier this is a subject matter you could probably do an entire thesis around.
There are tropes for male video game characters as well, why not focus on them also?
I kind of address this in the last question, but some of the reason we tend to focus on the representation of women is the power dynamic in the representation. Representation of men is also problematic and does deserve to be discussed, but again when we live in a society where you have 10 and 11 year olds talking about raping and murdering a girl for being annoying we have a problem. Now maybe they would have the same perception of a guy, but the amount of sexual violence that happens against women is a staggering number. We have equal protections under the law, we are steps away from a woman president and yet we cannot seem to solve the issue of violence against women. (Just FYI I live in Alaska which has the highest rate of sexual violence against women in the nation.)
What is the difference between focusing on this trope in Video Games versus its use in Literature and Film?
In Video Games I get to interact with the story and in certain situations I can put myself into the shoes of the character and feel like it is my story. When I watch a movie or read a book I am a voyeur who is watching someone else’s story unfold, but with a video game I can make the story mine. Now this might just be me, but as a woman it is easier for me to put myself in the moment of a character if it is a female. I can appreciate and understand the choices the male character makes, because I am technically making them, but it still feels like someone else’s story I am watching.
I really appreciate the little girl who asked her dad why can’t the girl save the boy when playing Jumpman. I thought it was great that he hacked the game to allow her to play the princess, because she relates more to the princess in the dress than the man in the overalls. Yet, as the princess she got to rescue the boy. That is such a great starter place for a little girl to know that she has the power to rescue and does not need to wait for the guy to rescue her.
Does use of the trope mean a game is misogynistic and should not be played?
This I think is some of where the crux of the problem lies. A lot of people take the stance that if it does not meet there standards of representation of whatever then it is bad and no one should play it. This is wrong in my opinion. I can still appreciate the amazing story that is Zelda and Super Mario Bros, while still exploring themes that might be problematic in them. I think it is important to be critical of all media and the things we love even more so. Sometimes we can be blind to the problems of media that we love, but if we can objectively examine these cultural items maybe we could start to see the world a little differently and even appreciate it even more for the things it does right.
Don’t examples of non-damsels-in-distress balance out the problems with damsels-in-distress?
This was such an interesting argument that I saw from people because I feel like it is comparing apples and oranges. It is great to show examples of where video games are doing it right, that does not make the damsel in distress trope any less problematic. As mentioned earlier though, just because it is problematic does not mean it needs to be thrown out – maybe just questioned as to why and how it is being used.
I mean really, if Bowser and Ganondorf wanted the kingdoms for themselves they should technically kill Princess Peach and Princess Zelda, I mean seriously can we think of a more overused bad guy trope than kidnap the princess to draw out the hero and be defeated? Mario and Link would still have the mission to save the kingdom, but the bad guys could have decided that by killing the princesses they were trying to break the spirit of the hero. Now obviously Zelda and Super Mario are meant for a younger audience and this storyline would probably not work so well, at the same time it is still interesting to examine if there would be other ways to drive the story of the games forward. (However much story there really is with a Super Mario game).
Does swapping the gender of the rescuer and rescuee make a difference to the story?
I just find this an interesting question to examine and do not know that I have much of an answer to this question. For the most part if you do a straight up swap I don’t know that it changes much about a game. An interesting examination would be in games where a guy is the one kidnapped or “in distress” how does it happen and how does it relate to the overarching story? I have not played enough games to really do a good job of this examination, but I think it would be an interesting question to explore.
What does it mean?
In the end the I think the important thing is to think about a story. It does not mean you cannot enjoy it, but we should not just blindly accept entertainment. There is some feeling that this is the way it is and it isn’t going to change, but that is ridiculous. If we discuss the issues and bring attention to the problems it might help someone think differently or examine their own thoughts.
I know people may have come to this thinking there would be a radical opinion, but I personally see a lot of gray area. I can explain why a damsel in distress would be perfectly legitimate in a story and it could be an awesome story. I also have to say I would love to play Sheik, that would be like the coolest game ever. You would have the combination of political intrigue playing Princess Zelda with the sneaking out of the castle and saving the kingdom as Sheik it would be LEGENDARY.
So what do you think of the use of damsel in distress? Do you think it isn’t problematic at all? Do you think it is overused? Or do you think the entire discussion is pointless?