“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 analyse the second video in the Damsel in Distress set. This video focuses on the more “dark and edgy” side of this specific trope in modern gaming. It also takes a look at how this trope is “often used in conjunction with graphic depictions of violence against women”. Developers have tried to spice the Damsel in Distress trope up by combining it with other tropes which will all be noted and detailed. As with the last post about the first video in the series, I have posted the video itself below as well as a summary of what is discussed including quotes and topics brought to light. Beyond that you will find my person take on the video including my general opinion, what I liked and disliked, and if I find this impactful (or not) – moving forward into plans for my “Part Three” post.
[SPOILER WARNING! In the video below as well as in my play-by-play of the video, spoilers for specific games are revealed. Sarkeesian has listed the games in which major plot points or endings are spoiler in her video description on her website. Read/watch at your own risk beyond this point]
The video begins with a quick recap of what was analysed in the past video as well as a general preface to the series. Sarkeesian clarifies that while the last video focused on this specific trope’s prevalence in the early days of gaming, this video with explore the more modern side of the Damsel in Distress trope. At this point she has added a montage of about 18 clips from 18 separate games that feature a more modern version of the Damsel in Distress trope at its core. It’s made obvious that the trope is still being used in the recent years of game development.
“…since the majority of these titles focus of delivering crude, unsophisticated male power fantasies, developers are largely unwilling to give up the Damsel in Distress model as an easy default motivation for their brooding male heroes or anti-heroes.”
Sarkeesian reminds the viewer that the as a trope the Damsel in Distress is used as a plot device and doesn’t necessarily confine the character to victimhood indefinitely. She says “Now and then Damsel’d characters may be well written, funny, dynamic or likeable” which implies that not all damsels are poorly developed or generally unlikable characters on a general basis.
The fact that they are likable can make the trope all the more deceiving since well-developed characters who are disempoered by the trope are overlooked as being damsels and seen as regular characters. Sometimes the woman will struggle r fight back, occasionally delivering the final blow to their captors but it’s either to no avail or done after the danger has passed. Sarkeesian views this as a way for the developers to excuse the fact that they used the trope and ignore the fact that they rely so heavily on the Damsel in Distress for the plot of the game. Periodically developers use well liked damsels as a way to make to the player have some compassion for the character and possibly force an emotional response out of the player, which inevitably makes them look past the damaging trope at hand.
“In the most decidedly patronizing examples depictions of female vulnerability are used for an easy way for writers to trigger an emotional reaction in male players.”
This becomes a problem as the female becomes victimized or is damseled in some way while the male gains power, leading the player to become emotional in response to the main character’s goal of saving the girl instead of the damsel herself. This played up emotional, intimate, romantic, or loving relationship with the female character which turns into motivation for the male protagonist reinforces the stereotype that women in vulnerable positions are somehow more desirable due to this vulnerability. Sarkeesian goes on to say that the bigger problem involved with this state of mind is the reinforcement of the “paternalistic belief that power imbalances within romantic relationships are appealing, expected, or normal.”
The damsel being alive and well in gaming today is not the big picture but rather one side to a larger problem. Here we take a look at what Sarkeesian dubs the “more insidious side [of] the story”. Sarkeesian delves into the ways in which developers add other ways of victimizing women into their games along with the Damsel in Distress trope, a way in which they “spice it up” to make the game more dark and edgy. Sarkeesian calls these mixtures of tropes “trope cocktails” and identifies some key examples of ‘The Disposable Woman’, ‘The Mercy Killing’, and ‘The Woman in the Refrigerator’.
The ‘Women in Refrigerator’ trope has been discussed by Sarkeesian before as part of her “Tropes vs. Women” video series (the one that is not specifically about video games). The phrase was dubbed by Gail Simone in reference to the trend of women being brutalized or killed-off in comic books as a way to move the male character’s story arc forward. It is not only a phenomena witnessed in comic books, it is used in all other forms of media for the same reason and mostly in the same ways.
“This trading of female characters lives for something meant to resemble male character development is of course part of a long media tradition, but the gruesome death of women for shock value is especially prevalent in modern gaming.”
Max Payne and God of War are both series’ in which this trope is used and both games are referred to as primary examples. In each series the main character’s wife and daughter are brutally murdered, “their deaths are then used by the developers as a pretext for their inevitable bloody revenge quest.” Sarkeesian notes that the gender role reversal of this specific trope (ie a woman seeking revenge for her murdered boyfriend/husband) “are practically nonexistent”. Here she points out Disney’s “Wreck It Ralph” and its comical use of the gender reversal of this trope, showing a scene in which a female character’s husband is killed causing her to seek revenge (a small clip of the incident is featured in the video).
Here we look at how the “Woman in the Refrigerator” and “Damsel in Distress” tropes are connected and often used in conjunction by developers in video games. She highlights a handful of clips from games that feature both tropes and briefly describes the game’s plots. One example used is Asura’s Wrath in which the main characters wife if killed and he must then save his daughter, the wife being the “Woman in the Refrigerator” and the daughter being the “Damsel in Distress”. Various other games are pointed to here, proving that this specific trope cocktail is used somewhat frequently.
“It’s no coincidence that the fridged plot device and the damsel plot device work in much the same way, both involve female characters who have been reduced to states of complete powerlessness by the narrative. One via kidnapping and the other via murder”
Sarkeesian brings another form of these two tropes working in conjunction called “The Damsel in the Refrigerator”. Since being the refrigerator implies being dead and the dead cannot be damseled, she clarifies how this trope actually works: “The Damsel in the Refrigerator occurs when the hero’s sweetheart is brutally murdered and her soul is then trapped or abducted by the villain.” This allows for the revenge motivation and the damsel motivation to be used at the same time with the same woman.
She showcases some examples of these tropes working together. One of these examples is that of Dante’s Inferno in which the main character’s murdered wife’s soul is trapped in hell and he must fight to free her. Sarkeesian feels that this is a way in which developers try to explore mature themes while still using a spiced up version of the Damsel in Distress trope.
“The Damsel in the Refrigerator is part of larger trend of throwing women under the bus in increasingly gruesome ways in an apparent attempt to interject what I’ll loosely refer to as “mature themes”.”
Sarkeesian brings the topic of violence against women back to light at this point, showing how that is what this trope is all about in essence. She says, “When I say Violence Against Women I’m primarily referring to images of women being victimized or when violence is specifically linked to a character’s gender or sexuality” as a way to clarify what she means when she brings up this issue.
She points out that damsels are not always rescued through male heroism. A few clips are shown from games in which the main character who has been trying to save the girl the whole time finds out he is too late or that she has been dead all along. One example used here is Dead Space in which Isaac Clarke is trying to find his girlfriend throughout the game only to learn at the end that she has been dead the entire time.
“Or in the case of the 2009 version of Bionic Commando, not only has your wife been dead the whole time but, turns out she’s also part of your bionic arm. Yes you heard that correctly, his wife IS his arm.”
The next topic is that of the mercy killing, defined by the male character finding the damsel and having to kill her himself “for her own good”. Sarkeesian calls this trope combination the “Euthanized Damsel”. A classic example if this trope comes from the Gears of War series, specifically Gears of War 2, when Dom struggles to find his wife and when he does he shoots her in the head to put her out of her misery.
Video games take different approaches to come to the same conclusion, while some feature the mercy killing via a cutscene others make characters become directly involved by “pulling the trigger” themselves. These situations can either be defined in realistic ways or in humorous ways in which the woman “becomes the punch line to a cheap, misogynist joke.”
“These damsel’ed women are written so as to subordinate themselves to men. They submissively accept their grisly fate and will often beg the player to perform violence on them – giving men direct and total control over whether they live or die.”
Sarkeesian states that the “Euthanized Damsel” is the darkest and edgiest of the trope cocktails. Male characters being forced to kill their female loved ones is the extension of a larger pattern of gaming narratives. A handful of examples are used here including Shadows of the Damned, a game in which the priority is to save the girlfriend of the main character but the last boss turns out to be her – you then must kill her.
Narratives in these games may differ in relation to each specific game or storyline, but the core is the same, “in each case violence is used to bring these women “back to their senses” for which they typically thank you with their dying breath.” She restated a point she made in the first video: Games do not exist in a vacuum and “therefore can’t be divorced from the larger cultural context of the real world.”
“Every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in the United States and on average more than three women are murdered by their boyfriends husbands, or ex-partners every single day.”
These depictions of violence against women perpetrated by men in order to “bring them to their senses” appear to be justified or altruistic in the game itself. Sarkeesian states that these real world issues are painfully prevalent in real life and therefore should not be excused in games and used as some kind of “joke” or simple storyline for a video game. The fact that the Euthanized Damsel typically asks for violence to be brought on to her reinforces the widely accepted belief that women “are asking for it” or “deserve” the violence brought upon them.
Sarkeesian says that given the larger social context it is “dangerously irresponsible” to create a game in which players are encouraged or even forced to act out violence against women “for their own good” or in order to “save them.” She doesn’t think that developers are consciously trying to make their players act out violence against women in their games purposefully, and probably don’t even think about it in that sense when making the game. She states that most developers seem to “back themselves into a corner” by their own game mechanics.
“The player is then forced to use violence to deal with almost all situations because it’s the only meaningful mechanic available — even if that means beating up or killing the women they are meant to love or care about.”
The defense of not paying attention to the subtext of their own game is not excusable, though. One of the biggest issues with sexism is that it is stereotyped and reinforced due to its “unintentional” nature. She clarifies that it’s obvious that playing and interacting with these games will not make a person become a misogynist or turn the into “raging sexists” since we typically do not impersonate the behavior we witness in the media. Cultural attitudes and opinions are reinforced through our media though, and these subtle ways of implementing sexism does affect stereotypes and general ideals.
She states that these games reinforce the “dominate gender paradigm” which “casts men as aggressive and commanding and frames women as subordinate and dependent.” A major problem stems from the fact that these stories are not about the women and their struggle, they don’t try to make the woman’s plight very serious at all and they don’t seem to bring any light to what she is going through since the focus is on the male character and his plight.
“…these are strictly male-centered stories in which, more often than not, the tragic damsels are just empty shells, whose deaths are depicted as far more meaningful than their lives.”
These games tend to frame the woman as a possession that was taken away from the man, as if she were his property and he must get her back or exact revenge over the loss of her. Sarkeesian states that if we were to dig a little deeper into the subtext of these situations, the story is really about the male’s loss of perceived masculinity due to the failed “protector” role placed upon him. His quest is then to earn his masculinity back through acting out copious amounts of violence on his enemies.
Sarkeesian mentions that these violent revenge based narratives also hurts the male image by making it seem like the only response they can have to pain, loss, death, and sadness is to be aggressive and violent. She says that this is unfortunate because “interactive media has the potential to be a brilliant medium for people of all genders to explore difficult or painful subjects.”
It is clarified that the problem is not simply that the female character dies or suffers since death is a fact of life which affects everyone. The point is that there are better ways to depict it that don’t involve brutalizing female characters. She brings up Dear Esther and other indie games that explore death in an authentic or realistic way rather than through excessive amounts of violence. Violence against women and death are issues that should be addressed with more respect and subtlety, “women shouldn’t be mere disposable objects or symbolic pawns in stories about men and their own struggles with patriarchal expectations and inadequacies.”
In conclusion Sarkeesian states that the “dark and edgy” trope cocktails are not isolated incidents or “obscure anomalies”. They represent an ongoing and recurring pattern in-game storylines.
“In most cases the damseled characters have simply gone from being helpless, to being dead. Which is obviously not a huge improvement from her perspective.”
While this episode of the series was a bit grim, the next episode (the third and final episode) will be about trying to “flip the script” on the damsel and explore the “Dude in Distress” role reversal.
And now, my thoughts…
I found this episode in the Damsel in Distress subseries to be particularly enlightening. If nothing else is to be taken away from the video it’s interesting to see so many games share the same basic premise as far as core story goes. I was shocked by how many of these games used this same trope over and over again in ways I previously overlooked. Maybe it’s time people started thinking of other ways to tell a story?
I feel the need to restate that while I don’t agree with every single point that Anita Sarkeesian makes, I do understand almost everything she is saying and can relate with it in some way. Violence against women is a huge deal in reality that is constantly overlooked by misogynistic males (and females) and showcasing it in a game just to make a simple story and fast money is wrong and honestly insensitive. There’s nothing wrong with exploring serious topics in the media and in gaming, but the way it’s most often done is not the right way to go about it in my opinion. I think that Sarkeesian may be looking into it a little too much but at the same time, it’s a valid point to make considering how crime specifically acted out on women is handled in the justice system and in people’s minds in society.
I found it particularly cool that she mentioned how this trope affects men as well. It’s obviously not in the same way or with the same depth that it affects women (especially in the male-dominated gaming world), but it’s good to see both sides in order to understand how demeaning this trope really is to everyone. Showcasing males as violent and aggressive while making women completely submissive hurts both genders and perpetuates some terrible stereotypes.
I also liked that she mentioned that the damseled characters aren’t always annoying or poorly written. I got a few comments on my previous article about how people felt it was unfair for Sarkeesian to imply that women who are damseled aren’t important in their own way. It was very cool to see her express that the fact that they are well written makes this trope all the more hard to take.
I found this video to be a little more relatable and interesting than the first video, mainly due to the fact that it focused on modern gaming as well as more than just one iteration of the trope. As I said before, I don’t agree with every point made in this video or any of Sarkeesian’s videos. I think it would be shortsighted to believe in everything anyone says without a little questioning or disagreement just because they have similar views or your respect. I love her videos because she brings these serious issues to light in an intelligent way. Sure she can go a little “overboard” or be a little too nit-picky but I’d rather her do that than approach it with misguided notions and fake facts.
I think it’s very important that she discusses these issues and brings them to the surface after being buried for so long. I have watched most of her videos on YouTube and agreed with the core points she made. One of my favorite videos is “The Straw Feminist” and I suggest you all watch it. It’s about 10 minutes long and discusses the trope that she describes as a “deliberately created, exaggerated caricature of a feminist that is used to undermine and ridicule feminist movements.”
As a feminist, I can safely say that this video highlights most of the reasons why I have personal met with so much aggression for wanting equal rights for the sexes. The media skews the feminist movement and makes us seem like a bunch of “crazy” females who hate men, which isn’t true in every case. The “Tropes Vs. Women” and “Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games” video series’ are great examples of what the media is doing to put women down and undermine feminist movements. It’s definitely something to think about, if nothing else. Next time I will be going over the third and final video in the “Damsel in Distress” set. Below is a link to my previous article on episode one. See you next time!