Published on April 4th, 2013 | by Andy Astruc17
Analysis: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Episode #1
Women have historically been treated differently to men. Often badly. This was precipitated by a multitude of factors, but much like the creation of the universe it is widely regarded as a bad idea. The passage of time and the ever increasing knowledge base of the average person has allowed humanity to take this unfortunate fact of history and do what humans do best: analyse. We of the sapient sentience have developed the nifty ability to evaluate our own actions as individuals and as a species; this trait allows us to judge the past (and present) to shape the future. In this case, the future portrayal of women in fiction.
Sexism is a rather broad topic, but one certainly worthy of discussion. Sadly, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games is not well placed to be a shining example of such discourse. Anita Sarkeesian set herself the lofty — and very public — goal of critiquing the use of sexist tropes in video games. She announced she would be creating a multi-part video series (initially five, but expanded to 12) that would explore “female character stereotypes throughout the history of the gaming industry”*, and launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds. The first episode of the series was released recently (you can watch it yourself here) after a rather huge delay, and begins dealing with the topic of the “Damsel in Distress” trope.
In purely mechanical terms the video is bland. If you’ve seen a YouTube upload where a person talks to the camera for a period of time then you’ve seen this. Sarkeesian (as in most of her other work) speaks directly to the camera while in front of a blank background and reads her script. It’s functional, although incredibly dry. The transitions are adequate and the footage of the games is a nice change, but the delivery is akin to a teenager reading his book report — although this matches the content, as I’ll mention later. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the presentation, it’s just uninspired and would drown in a sea of similar videos if not for the publicity the series has already generated.
The content in this episode ranges from disappointingly basic to laboriously opinionated. Sarkeesian indicates that this first video is an introduction to the idea of the damsel in distress, but it spends a huge portion of its 23-24 minute run time attempting to explain a trope that can be summed up in a few sentences. The historical origins of such ideas are inherently interesting at least, but again the presentation sucks the life from engaging information.
Perhaps I would have been more amenable to the video’s idea — if not its arguments — if the opening few minutes hadn’t been so ridiculously ill-advised. Sarkeesian opens her series with the story of Dinosaur Planet. This is the game which eventually became Star Fox Adventures, after Shigeru Miyamoto mentioned that the character designs reminded him of the Nintendo character. Sarkeesian posits that changing the game from a female-led independent property to another installment in the Star Fox series is an example of sexism in gaming. What was likely a commercial decision to favour a recurring and bankable Nintendo brand over an untested new IP is painted as the evils of the patriarchy at work. In an industry where developers have openly discussed their difficulties with getting female protagonists greenlit by publishers, Sarkeesian manages to pick the one example that almost certainly has nothing to do with gender.
When she finally reaches potentially problematic issues with Star Fox Adventures — namely the movement of female lead Krystal to a scantily-clad damsel in distress, the point is lost amongst haphazard claims about patriarchal companies. There is also a false link drawn between the aforementioned trope and the business decision to make a Star Fox game, as if the latter somehow shows how terrible the former is.
From this extremely questionable opening onward, the video begins to unravel. After the history lesson, we’re treated to a rather long look at the Super Mario franchise, with its iconic and consistently absent Princess Peach. Here Sarkeesian hits another snag, equating the constant kidnapping of Peach as a desire to perpetuate the damsel in distress trope, rather than an established franchise reusing themes it is famous for. The same mistake occurs later in a discussion about the various versions and remakes of Double Dragon: she decries the returning motif of the kidnapped girlfriend with no acknowledgement of the role of familiarity and thematic consistency.
Peach is always kidnapped because that is her lot as a specific character in a specific universe. She does not represent all women, and I don’t think anyone is ever saying she does. Other older examples of the trope are — by admission of Sarkeesian herself — a product of archetypes; they exist mainly because of the fiction, myth and legend that preceded video games.
The other reason she brings up is that it gives the main character a simple reason to act: someone important to him is in danger. Unfortunately, rather than discuss that point as an alternative to sexism in games, she comments that it appeals to an “adolescent male power fantasy”. This incendiary phrase hangs there, desperate for some form of justification, evidence or reasoned argument, but it quickly becomes clear Sarkeesian has nothing to say beyond that. It’s just a fact we’re supposed to accept. The description — which disregards the fact that most games, as interactive entertainment, are power fantasies for people of all ages and genders — is particularly jarring as it is dropped into a script which otherwise has nothing to say about the issues. Damsels in distress are described, but it’s very difficult to see why the video exists aside from as a very basic (and biased) overview of the trope.
Then all of a sudden it switches tone (although Sarkeesian herself maintains a passionless delivery throughout) and begins throwing out nonsense. At one point she brings up the subject-object dichotomy, which you might think is a philosophical problem involving the perception of the self and the separate self that does that perceiving. But no, according to Sarkeesian the subject is the protagonist of a story, and the damsel is the object. Note that this would make every NPC, including the villain, the object as well. She then tells the audience this is “objectification”, which it must be because she used the word “object”. If this bizarre thinking follows, when we play any video game we are objectifying every single living creature that isn’t a main character.
This ski jump of logic leads into commentary about women being presented as possessions in these damsel situations, prizes to be won. It’s rather frightening to think what Sarkeesian’s view of men must be if she imagines our first reaction on seeing our loved one kidnapped would be to file an insurance claim.
At one point in this ping pong match between education and ranting, Sarkeesian equates the whole situation to a game of football. The game is Patriarchy (capital P) and the woman is the ball. It’s an attractive analogy, two men fighting for control of a woman without her consent. Catchy imagery, but it’s a load of rubbish. These so-called balls aren’t even around for most of the game, which would make for an exceedingly confusing period of play. It’s also rather laughable to hear the person looking down on the supposed objectification of women literally reducing them to objects to make a point.
The Legend of Zelda comes up, inevitably, and becomes more of a problem for the video than the industry. Sarkeesian again sets out the constant kidnapping and disempowerment of Princess Zelda through the series, again without mentioning the idea of a motif. Worse still, the reason that Zelda is always in danger and saved by a small boy is integral to the Zelda universe. Hyrule is a world built on the legend of the hero boy who saves the day, and the repetition of plot elements is a conscious narrative choice that has absolutely nothing to do with gender or sexism. Notable instances of Zelda’s move outside the typical damsel formula (such as Sheik from Ocarina of Time and the ghostly Zelda from Spirit Tracks) are brought up, but essentially waved away as a “refreshing change”.
Sarkeesian states that the damsel trope “trades the disempowerment of female characters for the empowerment of male characters”. This ignores the fact that you could just as easily say that video games trade the disempowerment of everyone in a universe for the empowerment of the player. A fundamental failure to understand how a standard interactive narrative functions seems to permeate the entire video, with Sarkeesian unable to understand that the main character has more power because he or she is the main character. You, as the player, are empowered with the ability to act in a world full of predetermined paths. This misunderstanding is most clear when she compares the main character’s imprisonment or incapacitation with that of the non-playable female. She notes the men manage to use their own skills to escape, and laments the disempowered women’s inability to do the same. But the fact that the main character can take action in these situations is precisely why they are the protagonist.
It seems like Sarkeesian longs for a strange world where the main characters do nothing to help anyone. She claims the trope stops damsels from becoming the heroes, but fails to realise that if they did so they would actually become the main character. Should there be more female protagonists? Yes. But they shouldn’t be warped versions of damsels, twisted to fill a quota regardless of the narrative. Wanting a damsel in distress to be the hero is like ordering a steak and complaining loudly that you’re a vegan when it arrives.
Near the end of the video, Sarkeesian comments on the recent resurgence of older games on new platforms. She says these damsels have “larger ramifications”, and you can’t help but wonder if she’s suggesting we support the sanitising of old games (essentially the censorship of art) because past ideas make some people uncomfortable. This is where the video crosses from merely confused and shallow to potentially dangerous in its ideas. It’s akin to recent issues with the censorship of racist terminology Huckleberry Finn. One can imagine the video game equivalent of rewriting Heart of Darkness as a story about natives who teach silly white men about the value of peace.
What makes this seem even more troubling is that Sarkeesian seems to have little in-depth knowledge of the products she is condemning. While discussing the agency of men compared to women in perilous situations, footage of Metal Gear Solid is shown. This is a game where the main female character actually escapes, single-handedly, from a prison cell before getting the better of the strong male hero and running off with a bigger gun. It’s also a game where the most prominent “damsel” is a man: Otacon. Not only do you save him before you even meet, his first action as a character is to urinate in fear and hide in a cupboard.
Sarkeesian also makes an example of Dragon’s Lair, smirking derisively at the ditzy Princess Daphne. She then shows the perfect clip from the game, if you were attempting to show that it’s blatantly satirical. Daphne is a caricature of the very trope the video clumsily attempts to vilify, speaking with an impossibly sexualised and bimbo-esque voice and floating almost naked in a bubble that could only have been designed with display in mind. Sarkeesian’s inability to grasp a narrative as indelicate as this is a testament to the lack of veracity in her arguments.
Of course, as I said previously, there aren’t many points actually being made in the video. Most of the time is taken up with either doling out textbook information about the trope, or making random statements about power fantasies and patriarchy. Close to the end of the video it suddenly becomes less an information source and more of a soapbox, as she flatly states supposed facts with no evidence or reasoning. A “large percentage” of the world “clings” to the belief that women need to be protected. Women being weaker than men is a “deeply ingrained, socially-constructed myth” which is “of course” false. It’s clear at this point that you aren’t supposed to be exploring these points, you’re supposed to agree. Even if the statements were true — and they could well be — nothing in the video supports any of it. She also comments that the damsel trope in games normalises toxic attitudes about women, again with nothing to back this up. It seems extremely foolish to assume, without evidence, that sexism is any more contagious to gamers than violence or the desire to collect gold coins.
To finish the video, Sarkeesian assures us that she has been a gamer for a long time, plastering a picture of her as a child engrossed in some form of video gaming onto the screen. It’s strange to claim a qualification that almost every child in the civilised world can also boast about, and it rings a little hollow given the shallow interpretations of gaming the video offers in the 20 preceding minutes. She also says developers are free to make more female heroes, even though that has nothing to do with the trope in question, as making the woman the hero would completely alter the narrative. There’s even a snide remark about not counting handheld games, because we all know they aren’t real games.
Issues of sexism and gender are ripe for discussion. Gaming is a young medium and it’s encouraging to see the number and quality of people who are willing to stand up and form coherent opinions about the industry. For that reason it’s genuinely disappointing to see that a video series which received (and continues to receive) a huge amount of press coverage turn out to be little more than a rather dull middle-school lesson on narrative tropes, mixed with unsupported claims on the evils of the patriarchy. The end of the video promises more on the damsel in distress issue, so one can hope more substantial and considered arguments are in the wings. At this stage, however, Sarkeesian has nothing coherent to say about video games, tropes or women.