Today my review of the final installment of Tropes vs. Women in Videogames (Damsel in Distress, 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 more.
I do like that Sarkeesian recognizes the cross-over between media in this piece – that she sees the echoes in the games that feature female heroes from television series and movies that are doing the same thing (Buffy, Charmed, Sabrina, etc.). I kinda wish she’d been more conscious of that in the other two sections – to note how the games are the same, better, or worse than their surrounding media. Because that’s something that’s worth thinking about.
I have been thinking about that, actually, a lot lately. About how even in movies and tv shows I’m seeing the same tired tropes that pepper videogames. Recently, the husband and I went to see The Heat with another couple. The husband had some really interesting things to say about it – namely that it felt like an alien universe. Which I thought was actually really weird. It felt, to me, like a typical buddy-cop movie, except with women instead of men. But not to him (and not to my friend’s husband, either, apparently). He pointed out how Mullins was always emasculating the men in the film by commenting on the size of their testicles. How both women dressed “masculine.” How there wasn’t any real romance in it, at all.
How Bullock’s earlier film Miss Congeniality, which has a lot of similar themes about empowerment, made more sense to him. Why? Because ultimately in that film, women were being objectified. Sure, a lot of it was satirical, but because the girls got prettied up, it made sense. Because there was a male love-interest, it made sense. Because she had to act like a girl to win, it made sense. In The Heat, they don’t. The “makeover” scene is one in which they take out a lot of guns and end up in black cargo pants, tank tops, and flak jackets, carrying ammo and grenades. Bullock isn’t the “hot chick” of the duo who always gets attention – far from it. And they have to act like men in a man’s world in order to make progress, and they know it. It was very “true,” and apparently made the men in the audience really aware of their privilege. I want to play a game that does that.
I also just want to briefly mention something in light of one of Sarkeesian’s recent tweets about the series.
My Damsel in Distress miniseries doesn’t feature more heroic female characters in games as examples because they are not Damsels in Distress
— Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) August 13, 2013
While on the one hand, I totally see her point (which follows an earlier tweet in which she points out that just because the damsel-in-distress trope is prevalent in videogames does not mean that ALL female characters are damsels), I also think she’s missing the motivation behind the complaint that she isn’t addressing female heroes. First of all – and I do mention this in my review – there are lots of female characters who begin as or feature temporarily in games as damsels who un-damsel themselves, and I think those characters are very much worth mentioning. To quote myself (which is a little weird, I know):
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.)
My list is not simply a list of female heroes, but a list of female heroes who specifically and deliberately un-damsel themselves. They are damsels at first (or at some point in the game) and subvert the trope by redefining their damsel status from victim to hero. I think those kinds of female heroes are worth mentioning. I think others can be mentioned as alternatives (and Sarkeesian does some of this, very quickly) – answering the “What do we do if we don’t create damsels-in-distress?” question. Or the question of “How can we have a character in need of rescue that isn’t a negative damsel?” (since rescuing another person is one of our fundamental social power fantasies). These are legitimate questions that Sarkeesian doesn’t address.
But I do want to come back to the idea that although I am criticizing her work, I do applaud what she’s doing (just as she’s criticizing games that she might enjoy…). I don’t think she should stop. I do think that I want to see more than what she’s accomplished, however, and from other perspectives (feminist and otherwise) that do more work with the “gaps” in the TvW series. Because it does have gaps. Glaring ones that need to be talked about and filled.
But Anita Sarkeesian is only one woman who needs to sleep and eat like the rest of us, and her work – at the forefront of its genre – is going to have gaps. And that’s really fine. I’m not saying she should be able to do ALL THE THINGS. I am saying that there are gaps, that those gaps need to be addressed, and that someone – be it Sarkeesian herself or others, maybe even myself to a very small degree – needs to be working on that.