“Tropes vs Women in Video Games” – My Analysis (Part One)

“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.

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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.

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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…

Double_Dragon_Neon-1

Helpless girl gets punched and dragged away, this time IN HIGH DEFINITION!

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!

14 thoughts on ““Tropes vs Women in Video Games” – My Analysis (Part One)

  1. I hope they make a few about how women have been portrayed as… women. Like, in a positive sense, because not all things are like this. Ps. In Wind Waker, Zelda shoots a cannon with Link as ammunition. PSS. Lightning Punching everything. PSSS. Elika pretty much being a female version of the male protagonist. PSSSS. An example I will make is Titus Andronicus. A Shakespeare play in which it shows that women can be just as cruel as males. Also means they can just be the same. Which also means that that sentence is superfluous because I shouldn’t have to explain that. THIS IS GURREN LAGGAN!

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    • The whole point of the series is to point out sexist tropes and analyse them, not talk about characters and games that are normal/not sexist. Also, it’s called “Tropes vs Women” so I assume the focus is on misogyny not misandry.

      Maybe someone else could create videos like you described, but that is really not the point of this particular series.

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  2. I remember watching her video back when it was released. Indeed it was very informative and eye-opening. Particularly the bit about Star Fox Adventures, but I knew that game was terrible before I knew it was sexist. The backlash she received proved that there are plenty of people in the gaming community who will blindly defend the status quo. It’s sad really, how people get so defensive when someone is doing their part to raise awareness on shoddy narratives that reinforce gender roles.

    That being said, I believe it’s a bit of sampling bias to neglect games that were not part of the core series. Particularly the Mario RPG games where Peach is given a more important or equal role and is not the sole motivation for Mario. One of my favorite games, The Thousand Year Door, characterized Peach in a way that’s never been done with Mario. Then of course SMRPG where she’s a party member, one who’s invaluable IMO.

    Still it’s a great series and I look forward to seeing the rest of it. And reading your thoughts on them.

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    • I agree, it’s depressing to see people get so angry at someone for simply pointing something out that is offensive to pretty much half of the population. Certain individuals are so ingrained to think women mean less than men that half the time they don’t even realize what they are doing.

      While I agree with your point about the lack of mentioning Peach in games which she is more prominent, I think the point she was going for was for the core series/early games in the series since those fit the topic. She did mention that Peach is playable and whatnot in other games, but possibly couldn’t get into the other games in depth due to time constraints. These videos are only supposed to be 10-20 minutes long and this one was about 24 minutes long. I also think that she is using these videos to point out the negatives and not the positives since it is supposed to bring attention to the more negative issues. I could be wrong, but that was my take 🙂

      Thank you for reading, glad you enjoyed it! I can’t wait to write up the next one!

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  3. As a female gamer I kind of straddle the fence on this topic. Although I do believe that the media (including video games) do have a major part in influencing us I also think that the way Sarkeesian approached it was very biased. Yes the damsel in distress is very over used and frankly I’m tired of seeing it, but I think it really comes down to how you feel about the “damsel” you are saving. I have often found myself saving a damsel that, due to some really great back story, I actually care about. It is the same in the rare case that you play a female protagonist and end up saving a male character. Games are becoming more than empty entertainment, more and more I find myself crying over the death of a character, or even being so overwhelmed with emotion after a particular event that I need to take a break from the game.

    I think that violence against women is a serious problem and needs to be addressed however I believe this was the wrong approach, to a reasonable person, yes she is just pointing out a problem but you also have to consider that 75% of the world’s population no longer thinks for themselves, they would much rather just jump on someone else’s bandwagon. The other thing that really bothered me about the video, and many of Sarkeesian’s works was the inability to engage in discourse over the matter. I understand that she received a phenomal amount of backlash, but to completely cut off the means for civilized debate is never ok in something like this. And you have to expect that some people will never be happy, especially in a case such as this.

    So with that being said, I still have mixed feelings about the video, yes there is a problem, but I think it needs to be approached more objectively, because developers are slowly coming away from the trope, not fast enough, but it is happening. And to wrap up, I’ll leave you with something I’ve been thinking about lately, we as women are hurting the way others view us more than anything else. In a perfect world, this would never be a problem, but men throughout history have had one up on us, and the feminist movement of today seems to be moving more towards women gaining superiority to men. “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.”

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    • That fact remains that whether or not you care about the damsel you are saving, she is still disempowered. It’s the same for men who are damseled. It;s a very old and overused trope, especially in gaming. Sarkeesian makes it a point to say that it’s not the character herself, ti’s how she is treated. It’s no secret that the gaming industry has been about men and a male consumer base for a very long time. Women only recently started to become a serious demographic in the gaming world, either as gamers or as developers/writers/artists/etc. Because of this many developers are still stuck in the “sex sells” or “let’s appeal to men by doing xyz to the female” and whatnot. It’s more than just about this video or about Sarkeesian, it’s about this deeply ingrained belief in this country that women are inferior to men. It comes out in very subtle ways or in very upfront ways, and not everyone is in that belief category obviously – but many are.

      The thing is that people say things like you said about the 75% of people not thinking for themselves yet have no passion to stand up against it and put others down for trying to. People constantly say the same thing about these videos with a lack of understanding about the point of the videos. Sure, it comes off as bias or not the real problem, but we have to look at all of this stuff critically in order to make any kind of change. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to live in a world where people don’t think for themselves, I don’t want to live in a world in which I am not respected as a human being, and I don’t want to live in a world where I cannot fight against something that offends me. People constantly criticize these videos for the same reasons you have without realizing that at least someone is saying something and not following the typical female response of “oh well, that’s just how it is” when it comes to sexism in games. I’m not saying this approach is perfect or flawless, because that’s simply not true, but I think that Sarkeesian brings up some great points and at least made me think about this stuff on my own. I think it’s great that someone like her is at least trying to say something instead of brushing it aside, because this is a serious issue. You mentioned that you dislike the fact that comments are disabled on her videos and website which means no civilized debate. That is not the only way to contact her though, I have sent her e-mails and she has a Facebook page and a Twitter account. You have to realize that civilized debate on places like YouTube are almost non-existent. She received multiple death and rape threats as well as very visceral and heinous comments aimed at her and the like. I think it’s just a form of protection for her at this point.

      I do not agree with what you said about us hurting ourselves more than anything else though. Feminism is about the equality of the sexes, if someone is every trying to be better than men then they are doing it wrong. Sure, there are women out there who don’t go about feminism in the right way by attacking men and whatnot, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with recognizing and being vocal about sexism against women. It’s not ok to sit back and accept hateful comments or offensive portrayals in the media and it’s also not ok to put others down to bring oneself up. I personally refuse to let anyone treat me like less than a human, male or female. It tends to be males who tell me to “shut up” or “stop complaining” about sexism, but women do it too. Some women are in the belief that feminism is wrong for some reason, mostly based on the media and people around them portraying feminists as crazy people who hate men or something. There is nothing wrong with simply wanting equality, and this belief this is is wrong is hurting us more than anything else to be honest.

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  5. So what exactly would motivate your protagonist to move forward? Money? Power? Some games do this but this cannot be the only motivators. If roles where reversed and it was male characters being kidnapped and so on, would that even make money? Would anyone but feminist want to play that game, or read that book or see that movie?
    Until some other powerful motive can be discovered the damsel in distress will always be the got to plot device.
    The fact that the damsel can die, is killed or hurt beyond the initial abduction is to overemphasize the point.
    There have been women portrayed in more masculine roles and have met with some success, but unfortunately gender roles have been played out since the first days of creation, regardless of how we feel about them.
    Men, tend to be stronger and more aggressive than women. Men, want to rescue damsel in distress because the ultimate goal is sex, which is a powerful motivator, for men. Hell, wars have been declared over women.
    Women are possessions to be had by the strongest, when we examine our cultures and media.
    Are there some women that can be as strong or have the same impulses men do? absolutely. But these are few and far apart. Exceptions to the rule. The rule being that if a man cant have sex with it, it attempts to kill it. No media reflects this more than a video game.

    So unless something is discovered that will propel the gamer to move the story forward without this powerful impulse, I’m afraid this is going to be the norm for all eternity.
    I can think of a few games that might fit different categories.
    Like Hitman maybe Manhunt, hard to remember any video game that didn’t have a damsel in distress. Even the new Tomb Raider had it…a couple of times.
    Heavy Rain, had it.
    Maybe Diablo?

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    • Really anything can move a protagonist forward. It’s not like there is only one or two options and that is it. You’ve most likely seen plenty of movies, tv shows and games (or even read books) that have storylines that deviate from this trope. It’s not really hard to make a story in which women aren’t damseled, it happens all the time.

      It’s not about role reversal since that is no better and that is never brought up in the video or said by me, so it’s a bit off topic. You are acting as if there is only one choice and that is something everyone needs to accept, and this is something I cannot agree with. You have previously made it clear (if I am remembering correctly) that you see nothing wrong with sexism in games since it seems to make money, and I again beg to differ. People cannot seem to grasp that there is more to women that being damsled or a dude (super masculine), there are more choices than that just as there are with men. You prove the point that videos like this need ot be made since plenty of people are in the same mindset that this is acceptable and everything else is ludicrous.

      From what you are saying it also seems like you completely buy into stereotypes that hurt your gender as well such as that the only motivation to save a woman is sex, men are overly agressive (compared to women), and that men are stronger than women. All of those are stereotypes and of course may be true for some but not for all. You say wars have been waged over women but you have to realize that those occurred thousands of years ago (or more). Isn’t it time we all grow up and stop following stereotypes placed on our genders?

      It’s not a matter of “discovering” a new plot device since they have already been discovered and used to sell games. Look at the Mass Effect series, the Tomb Raider series, the Halo series, the Uncharted series, The Last of Us, The Bioshock series, The Call of Duty series, etc. The list goes on. Those are all games that are popular and sold well that don’t use the damsel in distress trope as the sole plot device. It’s obvious that it isn’t about selling games, it’s about creating an easy game with an easy storyline.

      You are of course entitled to whatever opinion you want to have, but it seems like you either don’t want to notice other games or that you may like games that use this trope. Either way, to each his own, I just think that you could open you mind a little more and see some great stuff 🙂

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      • Stereotypes although based on observation tend to exist because there is some basis in truth. Can I or anyone else see, read or play a game that has other plot devices than damsel in distress? Sure, but my point is that very little motivates plot as our basic needs. Sex, violence, like Call of Duty, revenge for ones family or to execute justice to the one who harmed your loved ones. Power, greed. These area ll present in games and other media, but sex sells, violence sells and sometimes when you combine these factors you rake in even more audience and admiration.

        Can things be different? perhaps. For every Max Payne, there is an Erin Brockovich-Ellis, but I’ve never seen or read or saw any form of media historical or otherwise that was completely free of “the damsel in distress”
        Its everywhere even in the most feminist propaganda.

        Take Jeanne d’Arc one of my personal heroes, at the end of her life, she was in distress, Men, judging whether or not she would live. Alexander The Great’s (another hero of mine) his mother was as shrewd and sharp as any man, in the end she was begging Alexander to come back to Greece for fear of her life. For protection. With all her machinations she could not insulate herself.

        I don’t know what to say, eliminate the “damsel” whether male or female and we may not even see as many titles as are released. each and every game would have to be a literary masterwork that made every possible attempt not to fall into a common trap. Do you really think we as a race excel in this way?

        I wonder if this topic is even one that is world wide, or local to certain cultures. Id actually like to know. I’ve been to a few places in the world and some cultures don’t even bat an eye at certain staples. Naked woman selling hot dogs..whatever, naked man selling a car, that OK? In Japan they have the Ososo Matsuri, it s festival that celebrates women vagina’s and fertility.

        Before stories can change, the human mind must change and more specifically our idolizing of the human form. Whether that be a woman’s or a man’s. I don’t see that happening ever.
        We love a beautiful body, we oogle over rippling muscles, we love to see skimpy outfits on a beautiful body.
        Photography, ads, movies, games. Real life and our make believe ones accentuate this and bombard us with this message every single second of the day.

        Even the fairy tales I read my children have this conceit.

        Just because I am a man doesn’t mean I do not feel the pressures of this phenomenon. It simply is. How you look, how you dress, who your friends are, what social circles you inhabit. Every little detail gets scrutinized.

        Games will change, when human race changes. Even in the congos were no barely any spoken language exists, woman are a prize to kill for. When they discover the gene that prevents us from wanting that, then i think we can not be so beholden to our primal instincts.

        I’m sure we can all tolerate different points of view.

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