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Anita Sarkesian’s first video in from the Kickstarter’d Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series was released last week!
This first video is about the Damsel in Distress trope (called “Part 1″ because “Part 2″ will address some of the more recent games revolving around this trope, as opposed to the older games addressed in this video). If you have 25-ish minutes, it’s an interesting watch!
After watching I got into a discussion with a friend of mine over what we both got out of it, whether it was useful, missing information, or even if it was just plain correct.
As a super-duper quick summary, in case you didn’t watch the video, the idea behind the Damsel in Distress (DiD) trope is that there have been a plethora of games (as well as other media throughout history) in which a “damsel” is turned into an object. She becomes a goal for the protagonist to obtain or claim, and she is incapable of taking any action herself; she is essentially depicted as weak or unable to solve her own problems.
This brings me to my friend’s first point: that from a protagonist’s perspective, he doesn’t necessarily want to own the damsel.
Sarkesian talks about the Mario/Bowser conflict, for example, saying that Peach becomes a ball whose possession passes between the good and bad guys. Mario is the good guy in this, my friend pointed out; he doesn’t desire to keep Peach for himself but rather to free her from Bowser’s clutches. His interest isn’t in “reclaiming” her for his own personal possession, so he’s not maliciously turning her into an object.
And I have no doubt that’s true! I mean, I don’t think there are any games in which the protagonist wants to take the DiD home and lock her up in a tower of his own. The protagonists themselves aren’t bad people (or whatever type of organism they happen to be) – that’s not the point. The point is that the game depicts the DiD as weak and incapable, and depicts her as such in video game after video game. Sarkesian isn’t hating on Mario the character (how could you possibly hate a fat little plumber with a giant mustache?), she’s hating on the consistently used trope of women as incapable objects as shown in a whole slew of games.
The other big problem my friend had was with the trope itself. He felt that the idea behind the Damsel in Distress – that the damsel in question is being objectified and is incapable of taking any action to fix problems on her own – doesn’t require the character to be a damsel; the objectification and incapability could happen just as easily to a male character. In fact, it’s the sheer number of existing male protagonists that makes the DiD trope seem that it applies only to females. He felt like it was disingenuous to claim that the DiD issue is the actual problem with female representation in games, when in reality it’s that there aren’t enough female protagonists to sway the DiD balance.
I don’t necessarily disagree with parts of his argument. Naturally the trope could technically also apply to male characters (making him the “Dude in Distress”?), and of course some issues of sexism in gaming could be aided by having more female protagonists. But the whole point of the DiD trope is that historically – for thousands of years as the video indicates – the Damsel has always been a woman. Having more women as leads in games would definitely be awesome and mitigate some of the pain of constant female DiDs, but it’s irrelevant in this case; it doesn’t make the problem of the DiD any less real, and any less applicable specifically to females. It would be more than possible for a story to move forward in a new, creative way that didn’t require a DiD and still had a male protagonist.
Ultimately, I think the problem Sarkesian is trying to point out is that it’s become comfortable for game writers and designers to use these tropes to kick-start game creation; instead of coming up with new ways to use all characters (and in this case female ones in particular since they are so often relegated to DiD-mode), they use tropes as lazy standbys. The perpetuation of these tropes has consequences, like reinforcing stereotypes and even simply losing money by constantly relegating a big part of the potential market to a character incapable of fixing her own problems.