“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 third and final video in Sarkeesian’s “Damsel in Distress” trope set. This video focuses on the rare “Dude in Distress” role reversal while also taking a look at retro inspired indie games and their use of “ironic sexism”. There is also a portion about titles that attempt to subvert or deconstruct the “traditional damsel narrative”. Sarkeesian also added a clip about a game idea that flips the coin on the “Damsel in Distress” trope while attempting to show how easy it is not to use the trope at all while still featuring a fun gameplay/story experience. As with my previous posts I have provided the Damsel in Distress Part Three video in its entirety as well as a summarized version in written form. Beyond all that you will find my personal take on the video including my opinions about what was brought up and discussed by Sarkeesian. I will finish it up with my plans of future “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” analysis posts.
Sarkeesian starts off with a brief introduction to the video set as well as a quick recap of the last two videos in the series. She quickly segues into the first topic of this particular video, is there a reverse form of the Damsel in Distress trope? “Are there games starring heroic women who must go on a quest to save a dude in distress?” Sarkeesian says yes, there are reverse forms or “Dude in Distress” narratives, as she calls it, but they are extremely rare.
As an example, she brings up the game Super Princess Peach (2006), a Super Mario Bros. universe game in which Princess Peach takes the spotlight and must save Mario and Luigi from her usual captor – Bowser.
“So finally, after being kidnapped in 13 separate Super Mario games, Peach gets to be the hero for once! But don’t get too excited because everything else about the game ends up in a trainwreck of gendered stereotypes.”
Super Princess Peach does offer up new gameplay mechanics, most notably Peach’s new special powers: Vibes. These vibes are her mood swings and players can allow her to being angry and rage her enemies to death or become so sad that enemies are washed away by her tears. Sarkeesian states, “Essentially Nintendo has turned a PMS joke into their core gameplay mechanic.” She also points out that Peach is not featured in any of the game’s narrative cutscenes which instead focus on her parasol who ends up being a cursed boy names Perry.
“So while it’s definitely nice to see Peach starring in her own adventure, the Dude in Distress role-reversal premise here feels like it’s just intended as a lighthearted joke or niche market novelty.”
A handful of games featuring the “Dude in Distress” role reversal are mentioned at this point including Balloon Kid (1991), Kya: Dark Lineage (2003), Primal (2003), and Beyond Good and Evil (2003). All of these games feature a female going to great lengths to save a male relation, love interest, or friend. Sarkeesian relates the release of these games to the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was popular around the time that these games were released. Buffy the Vampire Slayer lead to the “girl power” trend in the media in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Sarkeesian clarifies though that over the past decade these games featuring this specific role reversal have been few and far between. She notes the game Aquaria (2007), an indie game in which a woman must search for and save her love interest, as one of these few.
At this point Sarkeesian poses the question, “what is the difference between traditional narratives that place female characters in powerless positions and stories in which a male character requires rescuing by a woman?” She says that while they appear similar, they in fact aren’t and focuses on the broader historical and cultural implicates of this matter.
“There’s been no shortage of men in leading or heroic roles in video games” Sarkeesian states, pointing out that male leading roles are featured in the vast majority of video games and any other creative medium. She points to a statistic that says only 4% of all recent titles are exclusively designed around women in leading roles. She brings this up in an attempt to show that the “Dude in Distress” role reversal “does not add to any longstanding gendered tradition in storytelling.”
“…perhaps more importantly, damsel’ed female characters tend to reinforce preexisting regressive notions about women as a group being weak or in need of protection because of their gender, while stories with the occasional helpless male character do NOT perpetuate anything negative about men as a group since there is no long-standing stereotype of men being weak or incapable because of their gender.”
This simply means that women are made to be damsels based on the longstanding cultural stereotypes that women are weaker than men and are typically in need of assistance from men due to their gender while a male being damsel’d does not reinforce any such gendered stereotype. The indie game Spelunky is referenced here mainly due to it’s 2012 remake and the option to swap out the cliché damsel in distress with a male or a dog. The problem here is cultural, the female in distress is a cultural issue while the male in distress is not. Sarkeesian restates that this is because “one reinforces preexisting stereotypes about women, while the other does not reinforce any preexisting stereotypes about men.”
Gender-hacking is brought up as a way in which some players have gone above and beyond to replace famous male protagonists with female versions. Such gender hacks include replacing Link with Zelda or making Mega Man a female. Sarkeesian states that these gender hacks “illustrate how female characters taking on the role of heroic rescuer can directly challenge the status quo and interrupt the established male dominated pattern in gaming.” She goes on to say that gender hacking or replacing female damsels with male damsels is not a good long-term solution to the real issues at hand, stating that she doesn’t think “equal opportunity damseling is the answer.”
“Simply reversing the gender roles of a problematic convention so that more men are damsel’ed in more games is not the best long-term solution, even if the practice might be subversive in the short-term to help demonstrate a very real gender disparity in the medium. Ultimately we need to think beyond the cliché altogether.”
At this point the video shifts to focus on indie development and whether or not games made outside of big development studios (indie, mobile, or retro-inspired games) are breaking the mold on this particular trope. Sarkeesian list a handful of indie titles that use some form or another of the “Damsel in Distress” trope such as Castle Crashers (2008), I Must Run (2010), Fist-Puncher (2013), Hotline Miami (2012), and Guacamelee (2013); “Not to mention the myriad of other mobile games for tablets and smartphones which recycle the excuse plot ad nauseam.”
Sarkeesian states that it seems as if the tropes is more popular than ever with the help of these indie titles. With the resurgence of games bringing back the nostalgic feel of popular 80’s and 90’s classics the “Damsel in Distress” trope is being used now more than ever. She says, “many of these new titles essentially function as love letters to the trope, as a way of paying homage to classic games of years gone by.” Meaning that these games are bringing in the lovable nostalgia factor by recreating the trope in newer games, since many classics use the trope themselves (as discussed in previous videos). It’s implied that the developers of these games are undoubtedly using the trope since the games that inspired them did so themselves. Sarkeesian says in rebuttal to this idea that, “…this type of “ironic” self-awareness does not challenge or disrupt what the damsel in distress trope says about the role of women in such narratives.”
Sarkeesian shows four titles here in which “patronizing damsel jokes” are built right into the gameplay. These games are Fat Princess (2009), Dokuro (2012), Hoard (2010), and a aforementioned Spelunky (2009/2012). These games turn the damsels into literal objects as opposed to simple narrative objects.
“In Spelunky the damsel can be knocked out, picked up, carried around and thrown at enemies before rewarding the player with an extra heart via a smooch of victory (if you manage to get her limp unconscious body to the end of each level while still alive that is).”
In Fat Princess the object of the game is to capture the opposing team’s princess and bring her back to your base; Capture the Flag style. The problem here is not only that the princess is used as the helpless, captured object but also that she can be fed cake to make her “fatter” (while progressively sounding less feminine) so that the other team has a hard time carrying her. Since the player is supposed to find this entire concept humorous Sarkeesian refers to it as “one big sexist fat joke.”
This type of humor is often refereed to as “ironic sexism”. Sarkeesian simplifies the definition of “ironic sexism” by saying, “It’s this “I know that you know that I know this is sexist” where the underlying assumption on the part of media makers seems to be that as long as the sexism is overt, obvious or “over-the-top” then it somehow loses its cultural power and is suddenly no longer a problem.”
“Ironic sexism is dependent upon the false assumption that “people no longer really hold retrograde sexist beliefs” and therefore the very idea of sexism is now just a hilarious joke; but nothing could be further from the truth.”
The words “parody” and “satire” are often used in defense or to explain these comedic depictions of helpless females. Sarkeesian states that simply acknowledging the use of a trope for its comedic “you know I know” value does not grant a free pass to exploit the trope and continue to use it. She goes on to say that more often than not ironic sexism is used as a way for developers to use sexist tropes and themes without being held accountable for the “inherent negative gender implications” that come with the use of such tropes.
There are games out there which use this trope yet allow players to play as a non-damseled female in cooperative modes or even as the game’s main damsel after the game has been completed by playing as the male protagonist. These role reversals or opportunities to play as a woman later on does nothing to diminish the fact the tropes are used in the game in the first place, Sarkeesian states. Just because a woman can be played as in multiplayer or cooperative modes doesn’t make it ok to use the “Damsel in Distress” trope in the game’s main story line.
Sarkeesian clarifies here that these games may be very well made and extremely fun (“aside from their regressive gender representations”) but it’s still unnecessary since it’s very possible to create an indie game that does not use the “Damsel in Distress” as a plot device. Developers can still create games that hearken back to the nostalgic 8 or 16 bit era without using sexist tropes as plot devices.
“There are other ways to pay homage or shout out to the past through art style, game play mechanics or level design.”
She gives a few examples of games that achieve just that: retro feel sans the sexist tropes. The games she mentions are Sword & Sorcery (2011), Where Is My Heart (2011), and Fez (2012). Games attempting to make light of this particular trope are not limited to recent indie titles, they are simply part of a tradition in the medium that continues today in mainstream and indie titles alike. At this point Sarkeesian states that we should take a moment to look at comedy in relation to the trope since “comedy, in and of itself, is often confused for subversion or deconstruction in our current media culture.”
One example that Sarkeesian uses is Earthworm Jim (1994). In this title the woman in peril is officially called “Princess What’s-Her-Name” which is no doubt an attempt to humorously acknowledge the fact that many damsel’d characters in classic games are often so unimportant that they typically remained unnamed and were generally unmemorable. She notes that, “…the developers of Earthworm Jim noticed that sexist trend, thought it was hilarious and proceeded to make another game in which a woman is completely unimportant.”
To add insult to injury, just as What’s-Her-Name is about to give Jim the smooch of victory she is killed by a random falling cow. The bad ending of the indie game Eversion (2008) features a similar joke, when the hero reaches the princess at the end she turns into a monster and eats you alive. Another similar end of game punchline can be found in Castle Crashers (2008) when after you save the 4th princess and kill your friends over who get’s to claim her it turns out that she has a horrible clown face.
The punchline that is common in all of these games is that after the hero completes his journey to save his woman he is in some way cheated out of his “rightful” reward. Sarkeesian says, “In other words the comedy comes at the damsel’s expense.”
“These titles may be attempting to make fun of gaming conventions like the “heroic rescue” or the “smooch of victory” but they don’t fundamentally change, challenge or subvert the Damsel in Distress trope itself. The damsel’ed women remain as disempowered as ever.”
Some may contend that jokes have no cultural power or significance and should “not be taken seriously”. Sarkeesian states that while this is nothing new, she would “argue that this reaction fundamentally misunderstands how humor functions as one of the primary means by which the culture of sexism is maintained and perpetuated.” She says that media entertainment doesn’t just reflect our culture, it helps to create it as well. Sexist jokes in particular serve as a form of cultural permission which allows the solidification of “toxic preexisting attitudes and opinions.”
Of course humor can also be used for the opposite, to challenge or break down harmful gender myths but it’s much harder to pull that off. Sarkeesian states, “There is a clear difference between sexist parody and parody of sexism. Sexist parody encourages the players to mock and trivialize gender issues while parody of sexism disrupts the status quo and undermines regressive gender conventions.”
For example in The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) the protagonist, Guybrush Threepwood, attempts to save Elaine Marley when she already had an escape plan of her own. Guybrush ends up ruining her attempt to escape by herself. The joke is at the protagonists expense here rather than making fun of the damsel’d woman. Another example used here is the narrative of the indie hit Braid (2008) which features a damsel who has actually been trying to escape from the protagonist the entire time.
“Both of these games offer some interesting commentary on the heroic rescue formula. Monkey Island asks, what if the damsel is perfectly capable of orchestrating her own escape and attempts to rescue her just make things worse. Braid asks, in part, what if by trying to save the damsel, it actually makes you the villain?”
She mentions that while these games feature refreshing departures from the typical formula, which is something she’d like to see more often, the focus is still on the male hero or protagonist. Sarkeesian states that at their core these games are really “deconstructing the player’s assumptions about the traditional hero archetype.” A true subversion of the trope would need to start with the damsel as the main playable character, “it would have to be her story.”
At this point in the video Sarkeesian offers up a sort of hypothetical game design idea in which she details a game featuring a damsel as the playable character, seeing her side of the story. This concept is called “The Legend of the Last Princess” and is linked below for you to view separately.
A story such as this would actively subvert the traditional narrative expectations. The princess finds herself in perilous situations but has the strength, intelligence, and skill to get herself out of it all without help. Instead of being the goal or reward for a male protagonist, she is the protagonist herself. She is the star of her own adventure instead of the prize in someone else’s.
Sarkeesian clarifies that she is not arguing that all games need to feature a “completely fearless hyper individualistic heroic women” who is tough and never needs help from anyone. There is nothing wrong with needing or giving assistance. She says that the “human impulse to help others in need is certainly not a negative thing.” It only becomes an issue when these heroic helping acts are repeatedly presented in gendered ways that cast women as perpetual victims and men as paternalistic saviors.
“In fact cooperation and mutual aid are concepts that hold an enormous amount of gaming potential. True co-op games, MMOs and some RPGs offer gameplay possibilities that, if done right, can facilitate a mutual aid style adventure involving people of all genders cooperating.”
Sarkeesian wraps up the Damsel in Distress trope video set by saying that while these damsel narratives date back through the ages and are prevalent even today, there is no excuse for employing this trope as it perpetuates regressive stereotypes about women. She concludes the video by saying, “It’s been 100 years since a woman was first tied to the railroad tracks in this 1913 Keystone Kops short. And it’s been over 3 decades since the hit arcade game Donkey Kong helped entrench the damsel in distress as a default motivation for male heroes in video games as a medium. Yet here we are, still seeing the same old cliché trotted out again and again. It’s long past time to disrupt the established pattern – break the cycle and create new gender paradigms.”
And now, my thoughts…
There’s not a whole lot to say that I haven’t said before, but this video really brings up some good points whether or not you agree with every single one.
A game like Super Princess Peach fails in its attempt (if it even tried to make one) to draw in a female audience by making the entire gameplay dynamic center around a big sexist PMS joke. I mean really, crying your enemies to death? Come on. Games like this need proper criticism. I can’t tell you how many times people say to me “Nintendo is the least sexist company out there!” when really I’d argue that out of the top three (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo) they are the worst. This is not the only game they have published/developed that plays off of sexist stereotypes and a general disregard for women. Obviously Nintendo isn’t the only company to repeatedly use this trope, but they aren’t as innocent as many presume.
I really liked that she showed the flip side with some gender inversions that place the male in distress and allow a woman to save him. I agreed with her statement about how these don’t really help though as they are viewed differently in society in regards to gender myths and stereotypes. Men don’t face “Damsel in Distress” stereotypes in the media or in society but women do therefor simply flipping it bares no real weight in fixing the gender issues at hand. The point here is that making the male a damsel doesn’t reinforce harmful or regressive gender notions where as female damseling does, so it’s really not the same thing and can’t be used in the same way.
In the above breakdown of the video I wrote “This simply means that women are made to be damsels based on the longstanding cultural stereotypes that women are weaker than men and are typically in need of assistance from men due to their gender while a male being damsel’d does not reinforce any such gendered stereotype.” I think this explains it best. It doesn’t change anything or make anything better to flip the genders in regards to this trope. The trope needs to be done away with as a whole, to be honest. Putting a male in a damsel position makes no difference, it’s still a damsel and it’s still really unnecessary. As Sarkeesian said, equal opportunity damseling is not the answer.
The focus on indie games in this video was eye opening. I found it interesting to see how many indie games use this trope and excuse it’s use because old games did it first. There’s no excuse for lazy game development. Just because some older games used this trope and you couldn’t think of anything new or better to do doesn’t make it automatically acceptable to use the trope yourself. That’s just flawed logic, in my opinion. Obviously not every indie game is this way or has the same logic, I’m just being general.
I love that ironic sexism was brought up in this video as I personally find it to be the most degrading form of sexism, yet it isn’t argued against very often since it’s “funny”. I don’t find jokes at my gender’s expense funny and I don’t think that just because the people who made the joke know that I know they are being sexist makes it alright to use the joke in the first place. People constantly use ironic sexism as an excuse in games, movies, TV, and other forms of media. Someone will tell me a “get back to the kitchen” style joke and assume that I’m going to laugh because duh, it’s obviously sexist and we all know that so it’s comical. Honestly though, I wont laugh. It’s not funny and the fact that it gets passed off as humorous only makes it worse, now others will use it and say “I’m not really sexist, it’s just a joke” and further reinforce harmful stereotypes.
When ironic sexism is used in video games I find it particularly offensive as that is one of most heavily gendered media venues in the world. We all know that women almost always get the short stick in video games and even in reality when it comes to women who want to make video games or even play them. The fact that this type of sexism is used over and over again and then people like me make a comment on its offensive nature only to get the “get over it, it’s just a joke, relax” response is the worst, in my opinion. As Sarkeesian states, humor is a cultural narrative that shapes us just as much as we shape it. Jokes aren’t made unless they hold some form of weight. Telling a blonde joke for instance may seem funny, but it only reinforces the stereotype that blondes are unintelligent and clumsy which is hurtful to those who happen to be blonde. A fat joke is told for laughs but they are almost always extremely rude and typically downright hurtful to those who feel that they themselves are “fat” or struggle with weight. I mean look at the word fat. It used to just describe a person’s weight but now it is almost always used as some sort of insult.
This is exactly the problem we face in gaming. Men and women alike who are unsympathetic to the equality of women in the media and in society look at these sexist tropes and jokes as simple humor and make those who are actually are offended feel bad for being offended in the first place. The way I see it there is no excuse for jokes that hurt a group of people or even one person in particular. I mean, if you want to make them because you feel that way then go ahead I guess, but don’t tell me a “women belong on their back or in the kitchen” joke and then say you are not at all sexist because I’d argue that you are. Humor is a form of social commentary and people need to realize the weight that humor holds instead of brushing it off like it’s “just a joke”.
Again, that’s just the way I look at it. I’m sure someone will comment and tell me to “get over it” or “lighten up” but I wont. Getting over something offensive just means that you gave up on trying to defend your position and have given into the societal pressure to fit in and to be liked. I’d rather have my morals and do what I feel is right than be liked by people I don’t care to associate with anyway.
Since that was all quite off topic as far as this video goes, let me begin to wrap up my thoughts for you all. Sarkeesian states than while these games may be well made and/or extremely fun it’s still important to look at them critically in order to see and dissect the trope in play. Saying a game features sexist elements or even a sexist narrative isn’t the same as saying a game is inherently bad. It’s just like saying that the graphics or gameplay were poorly executed. The game may still be good even if it has some poorly done elements.
That is one of my favorite things about Anita Sarkeesian, she isn’t afraid to look a little deeper and be a little overly critical to get her point across. It’s so very necessary to feminism and equality in video games as a whole, even if at times it’s over the top.For example, I remember that when I tweeted about a part in Metro: Last Light being offensive on a sexist level one of the first people to respond told me to get over it and stop being dramatic. I never said the game was awful, in fact I like the game as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that I need to accept the fact that there are aspects that are blatantly sexist.
I really liked the concept for “The Legend of the Last Princess”. That looks like a game I’d enjoy playing! Seeing a damsel step and and be her own hero would be a neat concept. Overall, while I don’t necessarily agree with everything that Anita Sarkeesian says ever, I think this video as well as the other two in the series bring up some great points that I hope people see and consider rather than saying the age-old standby of “that’s just how it is, things aren’t going to change, accept it.” Things can change and the Damsel in Distress trope could be a thing of the past if people opened their minds a little to see what points Sarkeesian is trying to make, because they are typically very valid.
Next time I will be analyzing Anita Sarkeesian’s most recent video in the “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” dubbed “Ms. Male Character”. Thank you for reading!