Damsel in Distress

9 Mar

I’m talking about me, not Peach, and my distress is the kind that will end with me punching my way through the prison wall and navigating my way out through a maze of guards all by myself, thanks. But seriously, this is about Anita Sarkeesian’s project, Tropes Vs. Women in Videogames. Given how much space I’ve devoted to it here, the fact that I’ve blogged about how I’m getting kind of sick of the project, and the (finally!) release of the first video in the series just a few days ago, I don’t think any of my readers are going to be surprised that I’m going to post about it. The first video – Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress: Part I – looks at the history of the trope in games from the 1970s forward, with Part II promising to deal with contemporary games. Like VGW’s Jen Bosier, I have “some mixed reactions about it.”

As the video opens, Sarkeesian does remind us that we can be both critical and enjoyably engaged – something that a lot of detractors of criticism tend to forget. And this is very important to remember. I can like playing a game (or watching a movie or reading a book) even though I recognize the things about it that bother me from an ideological and/or a methodological standpoint. Criticism does not equal (at least not always) inherent dislike.

Okay, so the purple female fox was switched to Starfox, but while it may be true that Crystal’s outfit change was completely unnecessary, I think there was probably more to the change than just wanting to eliminate her as a hero. For instance, using a known and popular hero (Starfox) probably made the game more marketable, as it already had an audience. While I do agree with Sarkeesian that Crystal’s transformation into a literally “foxy” damsel in distress was both problematic and unnecessary, I don’t think that the choice to turn the game into a Starfox sequel was not necessarily the worst choice they could have made.

It is totally valid to point out that Nintendo seems to have, as Bosier notes, a trend of passing over or changing female-hero games in favor of male-hero ones, and she says that “the cause/effect of this would make for a great discussion. Unfortunately, this is abandoned to instead discuss the history of kidnapped females and how they worked their way into video games.” And here I have to agree with Bosier.

Perhaps it’s just me, but if we’re watching to hear about games, do we really need to hear the entire history of the phrase “damsel in distress”? Also, if we do, why did we skip the entire genre of chivalric romance, which, oh, invented the trope in its present form? But that’s just my academic side having completely unnecessary fits for the sake of largely irrelevant historical accuracy. But seriously, the whole “damsel in distress” segment should probably be its own video, rather than a part of a videogame critique.

Overall, though, I think this series – which is hard to judge from Part I of a segment alone – might ultimately prove to be a good thing, even though I think that it’s overly simplistic in its approach. There were a lot of things I liked about it, and I think that she’s trying to take on a subject that’s enormously complex and reduce it to something she can put into small, 30-minute-or-less segments. And that’s no easy task.

I liked her point that Peach (from Super Mario Brothers) was once briefly playable, but that she hasn’t been since (outside of some of the multiplayer versions). This is a valid point – as is her remark that female characters tend to occupy the object-position to the male subject-position within a lot of games. Yes, this is true, but everybody – up to and including my proverbial uncle – knows these games exploit this trope to the level of the ridiculous: as Bosier says, “I don’t know a single gamer who would point to Peach or Zelda as accurate or compelling video game portrayals of women.”

But – again – I want to hear about what we can do now, how games are creating a problematic ideology now, rather than what happened in 1970s and 1980s arcade games (like Donkey Kong’s cutscenes of DK carrying the blonde up the ladders). While Peach is the proverbial “damsel-ball” between Mario and Bowser, and many games have picked up on and perpetuated the formula through the 1990s, I want to see how this trope has been changed – or, more frighteningly – if it hasn’t. And, as Bosier says, Sarkeesian doesn’t mention the positives: “Also, as an aside, for as much time as she spends discussing the damsels of the 80s, I noticed she didn’t mention that it was the same time period that also birthed Samus Aran.”

When we get down to it, what I really want to hear about is not a catalogue of games that use a trope that predates their creation by several thousand years. Yes, the damsel-in-distress trope is enormously problematic and rests on a cultural tradition of misogyny. But videogames are not to blame for its existence. They are also not the only medium to employ and perpetuate it – films, television, books, and so on are also horrible culprits. Yes, she acknowledges this, and I agree with Sarkeesian that appeal to tradition is no reason to perpetuate the trope, but I’m not sure I find as much value in the historical analysis that she’s doing here as I would be in seeing her critique current games that are still exploiting the damsel-in-distress trope (what she’s doing in Part II).

Now don’t get me wrong – I think there’s a lot of inherent value to doing a historical reading of this trope in games from the 1970s-1990s. In fact, the academic in me thinks that it would be a great way to examine the way in which our social practices with relation to the job-market and career-choices in the real world are being reflected by the frequency and type of damsel-trope exploitation in videogames. In other words, do these games accurately reflect the ideological conceptions of gender of their decades, or do they attempt to cling to outdated tropes… and why?

Sarkeesian does begin to approach the question of contemporary games, as when she discusses Nintendo’s 2007 Ocarina of Time – which, I have to say, has one of the more sexist commercials I’ve seen in a while… I mean, really? “Wilst thou get the girl? Or wilst thou play like one?” Not exactly a shining example of gender equality. Sarkeesian says that the use of the trope actively disempowers women in the games in which they are damsels in distress… and that it creates a dichotomy in which male characters can only be empowered when women are disempowered. She also says that male characters are allowed to escape their imprisonment – while women are expected to passively wait for rescue (usually by a male). And she’s absolutely right that this strips them, in the world of these games, of agency and even personality in most cases.

(Can I just say, in a side note, that Dragon’s Lair is awful? And Princess Daphne… I… I’m just not going to say anything, but did you see her [lack of] outfit?!)

Sarkeesian’s closing becomes a little too political, I think, for the kind of project she’s working on. Yes, she’s absolutely right that games are a reflection of our social practices, and that they can perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Absolutely. And she’s also right that developers can choose to have female heroes in their games. But I think that just making women protagonists isn’t the answer to the “problem” of the damsel-in-distress trope. The “problem” is in large part that it isn’t as simple as just making the hero female. For instance, Tomb Raider as a series doesn’t do a lot to remove the labels of either misogyny or objectification from videogames, and it has a female protagonist.

Like Bosier, I was left with “the burning question in my mind was simply, ‘What’s the point?’” Okay, yes, this trope exists, it’s a problem, but what do you want me to do with that? It’s the same question I ask my students when they present me with a catalogue of “look at this thing in this novel!” So what? What’s the actionable part of your thesis? Why is this relevant? Why should I care? As Bosier says, “My concern is that I really, really wanted this video to start a serious conversation. Not only start a conversation, but advance the conversation. This video merely states facts that are already known and with her constant referencing Peach and Zelda, it feels like we’re spinning our wheels.”

I want to make it clear that I’m supportive – despite my being rather tired of the constant invoking of Sarkeesian like some sort of martyr to the feminist-online-cause (and I am still sick of it) – of her work. I didn’t support the Kickstarter financially, but I do support her project spiritually, even if I’m not 100% on board with her methods or conclusions. As she says in the opening of her video, we can criticize things and still like them. But because it’s Sarkeesian, there are any number of people who have crawled back out of the woodwork to once again raise a trollish-level stink, as Gameranx notes in its piece from yesterday, “Comments Aren’t Disabled.” Because clearly that was so effective last time.

Ultimately, I think that this series will do more good than harm. In fact, I don’t think that beyond prodding the proverbial hornet’s nest of internet trolls, it will do much harm at all. While I would like it to be more critical, more engaged with the nuances of the industry, and more reflective of its purpose behind a vehicle for complaint, I think it’s far better existing than it would have been never to have been made. And I applaud Sarkeesian for her desire to make it. I’d like to see someone more familiar with the industry, more academic (or at least, more trained in formal critical practices), add to the conversation, but I’m glad Sarkeesian is making them. I also hope that other people – men, women, cisgendered folks – will join in the conversation, because as much as I support Sarkeesian’s project, I don’t want her to speak for all feminist, female, or non-standard-white-male gamers. I want her voice to be heard, yes, but I don’t want it to be my voice. So while I’m going to work on my small chirping from this corner of the academic feminist-gamer side of the world, I hope other people aren’t deterred either by the content of Sarkeesian’s work or the backlash that she’s receiving. I hope she inspires others to speak up and make videos and posts of their own, or to hunt down places (like The Border House or Stay Classy) where others are already doing so.