“Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” is a video webseries hosted by Anita Sarkeesian which is featured on her website Feminist Frequency. The series was funded via a Kickstarter and aims to “explore five common and recurring stereotypes of female characters in video games.” Due to the success of the Kickstarter program there are to be 12 trope-exploring videos including Women as Reward, The Sexy Sidekick, Mrs. Male Character, and more.
“The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.”
The first trope discussed by Sarkeesian in video form is the Damsel in Distress trope, which she has split into a three-part video set. In a similar series of three posts I plan on analyzing each video through brief descriptions of what is discussed as well as insight into my personal thoughts on each video.
In this post I will analyzing the first video in the Damsel in Distress set. This video addresses how the Damsel in Distress trope became “one of the most widely used gendered cliché in the history of gaming”. Sarkeesian gives various examples of the earliest depictions of this trope as well as it’s relevance in the gaming industry. Below I have posted the video itself from the Feminist Frequency YouTube channel as well as written up a general overview of the video itself and what Sarkeesian discusses as far as examples and general points made. After that you will find my personal opinion on this specific video, what I have taken away from it, and plans for my “Part Two” post about this webseries.
Damsel in Distress: Part One
The video begins with an example of how the Damsel in Distress plot device robs female characters of the chance to be heroes by disempowering them. The example used is that of Star Fox Adventures for the GameCube and how a character who is damseled in the game was originally supposed to star as the (less scantily clad) hero of her very own game. Sarkeesian then describes where the phrase Damsel in Distress comes from and what is means.
“As a trope, the Damsel in Distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing the core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.”
The trope obviously predates video games by thousands of years, being traced back to Greek mythology in the tale of Perseus. As the video progresses through the ages and into early video game development, Sarkeesian highlights one of the first video games created by Nintendo developer and publisher Shigeru Miyamoto. The game was inspired by King Kong and featured a male character named “Jump Man” (later inspiring the character Mario) who must save a female character named “The Lady” (later renamed Pauline and inspiring Princess Peach) from a giant ape named Donkey Kong. This game is one of the very first examples of the Damsel in Distress trope in video games.
Nintendo and Miyamoto continue to use Princess Peach as the Damsel in Distress in the majority of Mario Bros. core video game series, only appearing as a playable character in one game of the main series – Super Mario Bros. 2. She is consistently pushed into the Damsel in Distress role throughout the rest of the core Mario Bros. games including the newer games in the series such as New Super Mario Bros. U. The only other games she is playable in are spin offs such as Mario Kart, Mario Party, and the Smash Brothers games. Sarkeesian shows a handful of examples in which women are not only damseled but depicted as the possession of the male character which he must get back in early arcade games, a time period in which the Damsel in Distress trope is very prevalent as a main plot device.
“At its heart, the damsel trope is not really about women at all. She simply becomes the central object in a competition between men, at least in its traditional incarnations. I’ve heard it said that in the game of patriarchy women are not the opposing team, they are the ball.”
To show an example of that expression, Sarkeesian states that we can think of Bowser and Mario as the opposing teams with Princess Peach as the ball. They fight each over possession of the Princess in almost every game of the core series, making it more about their struggle than about Princess Peach’s. It is mentioned that while Nintendo obviously did not invent the Damsel in Distress trope, the popularity of their “save the princess” formula has inspired many other game developers to take the same lazy approach to story development. Nintendo set the standard for the gaming industry with hits like Super Mario Bros. and many other game developers followed suit to appeal to straight young men, the main consumer base for video games at the time. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s the trope became extremely prevalent in video games with literally hundreds of examples throughout the time period.
Sarkeesian then takes the time to clear up common misconceptions about this specific trope and how it is often grouped with other separate tropes including the designated victim, the heroic rescue, and the smooch of victory. These are not always paired together though, as the protagonist may not be able to save the damsel or the damsel may not remain a damsel throughout the entire game. This transcends into the next highlighted Miyamoto/Nintendo damsel: Zelda of the Legend of Zelda games.
Over the course of the Legend of Zelda franchise, all of the Princess Zelda incarnations have either been kidnapped, cursed, possessed, turned to stone, or otherwise disempowered. Sarkeesian brings up that while Zelda has never been a playable character in the core Legend of Zelda series, she is often given a much more substantial role than that of Princess Peach in the Mario Bros. series. Zelda is not always a kidnapped damsel like Peach and occasionally rides the line of damsel and in-game sidekick. Zelda assists Link, the franchise’s main protagonist, on occasion by opening doors and giving him items or power-ups, Sarkeesian has dubbed this type of theme variant as “the Helpful Damsel”.
In Ocarina of Time Zelda takes on the role of the masculine assistant to Link – Shiek. Once she reveals her identity later in the game and transforms into her feminine form though, she is captured and damseled within three minutes. Tetra was also made an example of this due to her role in Wind Waker. In the beginning of Wind Waker she is a tough female pirate who helps Link until she later reveals her more feminine identity (Zelda). She is then told that she can no longer help Link since it is too dangerous (even though it wasn’t dangerous before when she was in pants) and is sent to wait alone in a tower. She is soon (and obviously) kidnapped and then damseled for the rest of the game.
“It’s disappointing that even with her moments of heroism, Zelda is still damseled. She is removed from action, pushed aside, and made helpless at least once in every game she appears in.”
Now we take a closer look at what the Damsel in Distress trope really means. “It is not just a synonym for weak,” Sarkeesian states, “instead in works by ripping away power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones.” When the trope is boiled down, it is trading the disempowerment of female characters for the empowerment of male characters. Male characters occasionally become imprisoned or otherwise incapacitated in their own games, but rely on their strength, skill, and/or cunning to escape on their own. The process of overcoming this ordeal is an important process in a protagonists transformation from a standard character to a bonafide hero, while a damseled woman is portrayed as incapable of escaping her predicament on her own. In this way it’s made into less of an escape for the damsel and more of a triumph for the hero. This robs the damsel of the opportunity to be a “hero” and escape on her own without help from a male character.
With older video game classics being released on newer platforms or being given HD remakes, the trope is not yet dead. Sarkeesian shows an example of this in the Double Dragon games. In the opening scene a woman is punched in the stomach and carried away by the villain to be rescued later by the hero, showing her underwear to the player as she is taken away adding insult to injury. This same scene has been rehashed in various remakes and re-releases of the game over the past 25 years, ensuring that every generation gets the chance to see this poor woman battered and damseled over and over again. This scene is even remade in the newest release of the game, Double Dragon Neon (2012).
“The pattern of presenting women as fundamentally weak, ineffective, or ultimately incapable has larger ramifications beyond the characters themselves and the specific games they inhabit. We have to remember that these games don’t exist in a vacuum, they are an increasingly important and influential part of our larger social and cultural ecosystem.”
Sarkeesian goes on to say that many people around the world still view women as helpless and in constant need of protection from men, which is a sad thought. “The belief that women are somehow a naturally weaker gender is a deeply ingrained and socially constructed myth,” Sarkeesian says, “which of course is completely false.” This notion is continuously projected through women being portrayed as such in all forms of media. It is made clear that Sarkeesian does not mean to say that all games featuring the Damsel in Distress plot device are automatically sexist or lack value, but that it does help to reinforce toxic values placed upon women. There is nothing stopping developers from turning this around and featuring more women as heroes in their games, though, which takes a positive spin on the negativity of this trope. In conclusion she states that while it is obvious that this trope is the most widely used trope in gaming, having been used since the early days of video game development, it is not limited to older games. She sets up part two of the Damsel in Distress trope videos by asking about modern games and if anything has changed in the past 10 years before the end of the video.
And now, my thoughts…
I must say that this particular video really opened my eyes as a gamer and as a female. I always knew about Peach and Zelda being damseled, but I never realized how many other games and franchises used that same plot device. It really struck me as odd and lazy from a development standpoint, to be honest. As if there is no other plot device they could have used in these games. Sexism aside, it seems like developers wouldn’t want to use the same plot that everyone else has been using since the birth of video games and would rather come up with something new. The Damsel in Distress trope really does take away the power of women in games that feature it, highlighting them as mere objects which the heroic male must save. To be honest, it gets old. It’s basically playing various games with the same basic plot only with a different setting and characters, which is like playing the same game over and over when you boil it down.
The sad part is that characters like Princess Peach, Princess Zelda, and many other damseled women had/have the opportunity to be just as strong as their male rescuers. It’s obvious when looking at games like Tomb Raider or Beyond Good and Evil that women can be just as heroic as men and possess the same capabilities in combat and adventure. One of my favorite points made in this video was that just because a game features this trope it is not inherently awful. I think people misunderstand this and assume that when I or others say “There are sexist aspects of this game” that I am saying “This game sucks”, which offends them and makes them combative. I personally experience this reaction most often and constantly have to reassure people that when I call out the sexist parts of a game I am not saying the it is terrible or lacks value as a game. The fact that Sarkeesian pointed this out made be very happy since I think it is of the utmost importance to clarify.
What I love about this video in the overall sense is how informational it is. There were things that I didn’t know or didn’t realize about gaming and this specific trope that really blew my mind. I think that Anita Sarkeesian explains it all in a way that makes sense as is easy to understand, making this video more than just another video about sexism in video games. She brings up a lot of great examples and points that I have personally used when talking about sexism in gaming with others. People get offended by her videos for various reasons and have taken to saying and posting some awful things to/about her in response, but I think it is extremely important that she made this and other videos. If people could only look at them with a more open mind they would understand what she is saying and even see it for themselves when playing games.
In part two of the Damsel in Distress “Tropes vs Women” videos, modern gaming is analyzed as far as the Damsel in Distress trope is concerned. Sarkeesian discusses how violence against women is usually paired with this trope in more modern incarnations and how developers have tried to change-up the classic trope by adding new parts to it. I hope you all enjoyed my analysis of part one of the Damsel in Distress video series. See you next time for part two!