by Kristin Bezio
Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new readers for this post written in May! 2013! If you want to comment or share this, do so knowing Kristen is a feminist AND a game critic AND a game player AND an academic, so this is a critical analysis, because The Learned Fangirl’s tagline is “a critical look at pop culture and technology”!
So some months back, I posted about how I was “over” Anita Sarkeesian’s as-yet-non-existent series, Tropes vs. Women in Videogames. Well, now it exists. Two parts of an episode, in fact, focusing on the trope of the “Damsel in Distress” (Part one here. – Part two here) Okay, so far, so good. I agree that videogames – and TV, and film, and books, and people – harp incessantly on this trope. Our culture is obsessed with it. Our fairy tales, our children’s stories, our myths and legends, and our popular media since time out of mind have locked princesses in towers, had daughters guarded by fire-breathing dragons, and placed women in harm’s way all so that they could be rescued by dashing young men in armor, on white horses, or in sexy sports cars.
And videogames are indeed among the most flagrant offenders. Part one looks at some of the “golden oldies” of the gaming industry, which are naturally problematic, but don’t seem to me to be any worse in the damsel-in-distress department than any other media of the 1970s and 1980s. While context doesn’t excuse all faults, I think in this case the games are as much a reflection of their time as they are perpetuating a harmful stereotype. I think the fact that games never really seem to have left the 1970s, ideologically speaking, is a much bigger deal than the fact that they started there. But that’s only one of my issues, especially since Sarkeesian points out in Part Two that the trope hasn’t stayed nicely in the past where it belongs.
Sarkeesian looks at a couple of problems. First, the tendency of games to focus on a male hero. True, and it’s something I’ve talked about here before when looking at box art for games. She points out that one of the Starfox titles even changed from a heroine to a hero, and then trapped the original heroine in crystal (her name is also Crystal … clever, eh?) for Starfox to rescue. Okay, yes, problem. Princess Peach (I’m going to restrain myself here) is also always needing Mario to rescue her, and usually in another castle. The Legend of Zelda is named for Zelda… who is also stuck somewhere, needing Link to come find her. And Princess Daphne from Dragon’s Lair… I’m not even going to go there, because I’d never stop. And yes, I agree that all these games are problematic.
But what I didn’t see was any attempt to find the nuance in these games. Nor was there an attempt to talk about the positives, and there was at least one really big one: Metroid, also developed in the 1980s, which featured a female hero who was both badass and not scantily clad.
Now on to Part Two.
It opens with a warning – because apparently in the twenty-first century, games contain such graphic and sexualized violence that Sarkeesian felt that a trigger and parental warning was necessary. Not a good sign, games industry.
Among the tropes that Sarkeesian identifies with the damsel-in-distress (DID) is the murdered woman (“woman in the refrigerator”) – wife, girlfriend, daughter – who has been so objectified that she has been reduced to an object. This has been made even more complicated by what Sarkeesian calls “the damsel in the refrigerator,” or the dead woman whose soul has to be rescued (honestly, if I heard “your murdered wife/girlfriend’s soul is trapped in hell and you must fight to free her” one more time …). The weirdest one of these is from Bionic Commando (2009), in which the dead wife in question has been incorporated into the hero’s arm. Not even Sarkeesian can keep a straight face at that one, and I can’t blame her.
If the DID is lucky, the revenge-motivator for the male hero is the result of a wife/girlfriend/daughter’s rape instead of a murder. “Lucky.” And sometimes, the hero has to kill the DID because she has been possessed or otherwise corrupted – mutilated, maybe, or turned into a vampire/zombie, or simply because she’s in the way of the hero killing the villain (what Sarkeesian calls the “Euthanized damsel”). Or in which the supposed DID is actually the primary villain, either of her own will or not – what Sarkeesian refers to as the use of the supernatural justification for domestic violence. While this may be a bit of an extreme take, I have to agree with Sarkeesian that these are a huge problem, especially because they are so prevalent. If we saw a similar prevalence of violence and victimization of male characters, it wouldn’t bother me so much, and some games do contain it: Gears of War 3, the Mass Effect series, the Dragon Age series.
One of the interesting, and problematic, claims that Sarkeesian makes about modern DID characters is that attempts to make them more complex while maintaining the trope is actually “all the more frustrating” than if they had been left two-dimensional. And while I agree that the continued presence of DID characters is infuriating, giving them attitude or making them more people and less objects cannot be a bad thing. It’s not enough, but it’s a step in a positive direction. DID characters who assist in their own rescue are similarly vexing to Sarkeesian, but, again, I would point out that at least they are now shown having some sort of agency.
I’m also not sure that developers are “throwing them in at the last minute to excuse their continued reliance on the damsel in distress.” I think they’re using a tried-and-true trope because it is effective. I don’t think they even think about the fact that DID characters might be annoying to a significant portion of the gaming demographic. I don’t think they think about it at all – I think they pick a narrative line that is comfortable, familiar, and safe. Because I know that my husband didn’t stop to consider the fact that Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite is a DID, or that I might find her constant need for rescuing irritating as a female gamer. And Elizabeth is one of those more complex DIDs – she is both victim and the most powerful thing in the game, and she is still a DID. Do I give Irrational credit for making her complex? Sure. But she is still a DID, and that does still bother me (as Sarkeesian says, one of the problems of systemic misogyny is that it can be unintentional).
But, as with earlier games, they aren’t that different from what we see in other media. That’s not an excuse, of course, but the TvW series doesn’t mention that. It seems as though videogames are the sole – or at least the worst – perpetrators of the DID trope. Although really, that’s not an excuse. All forms of media should be trying to escape – or at least not rely so heavily on – the DID trap.
I agree, though, that simply making a DID more complex isn’t enough. Nobody wants to play a Commander Shepard who needs saving – and if you play a female Shepard (known in the community as femShep, as opposed to manShep), she doesn’t. In fact, she saves everyone else, male, female, or other. But femShep is enormously popular, so much so that BioWare put her on (okay, on the back of) the collector’s edition box. And not just with women – male gamers play femShep, too, just as they play Tomb Raider and Metroid games.
Another of Sarkeesian’s valid points is that when the core mechanic of a game is violence, that violence has to be against someone or something. And, perhaps more importantly, this means that violence is the primary means of player interaction in a game, so if the developer wants the player to interact with a female figure, the first form of interaction is violence. Now there are a lot of games that have come to include conversation options in addition to violence – BioWare games, Bioshock Infinite, and Heavy Rain all spring to mind – or that have alternate mechanics, like Dishonored or Deus Ex, which include non-lethal options.
Ultimately, I’m much happier with Part Two than I was with Part One – I think that where Sarkeesian is trying to go is where we need to go as critical players and viewers, as consumers of all popular media, not just games. But, as with Part One, I want to see more about the full context of female depiction in games. I want to see not just the most flagrant examples of DID characters, but those who partially and fully eschew the label as the central point of the game – Samus Aran, femShep, Lara Croft, Elizabeth, Emily. I want to see the games that begin with a DID trope and explode it, to show examples of the trope being rejected within major industry titles (not just small-scale indie games that aren’t going to be popular). She promises to examine these in Part Three, along with the “dude-in-distress” role reversal.
Sarkeesian’s message – that women should be more than objects – is true, but in the series she seems to reinforce that trope as precisely what female characters are. And pointing at something and identifying it isn’t the most productive way to get it eliminated; instead, I want to see what Part Three has to offer in the way of positive depictions, but also to see a really detailed examination of how these women both fit and defy the DID trope. The biggest problem I have with the TvW series thus far is that it is so concerned about its politics that it stops being about game criticism and becomes a laundry-list of “this is bad,” “this is also bad,” and “this is really bad,” which diminishes its own credibility because of its one-sidedness.
Yes, these things are bad, also bad, and really bad, and I complain about many of them when I play the games myself. But I also recognize the good things that some of these games are trying to do, as well. To dismiss Gears of War 2 as misogynist simply because Dom shoots his catatonic (and mortally infected, which Sarkeesian did not mention) wife does not mean that the whole game is sexist. In fact, it contains just as many victimized male characters (more, even) than female characters, and Gears of War 3 includes two playable female heroes in its campaign who most definitely do not need rescuing. What I’d rather see is a detailed examination of a series, a single game, or a development house that can do justice to both its negatives and its positives.
Ultimately, I’m starting to get a little fed up not simply with Sarkeesian (with whom I’m actually more pleased than I was at the release of Part One, and whom I hope will continue to improve in my estimation with Part Three), but with a lot of voices in the gender-and-videogames arena. My problem is not that I think they’re wrong, but that I think they’re deliberately exploiting the worst offenders and characterizing them as the “norm.” Now I do think that the “norm” in the gaming industry is misogynist, or at least oblivious to gendered issues, but I don’t think it’s quite as raging as it is depicted by the loudest members of the feminist camp.
I do understand, too, that yelling and screaming is only really effective if it has shock-value, and that we need to point at the worst in order to improve the best, but I also feel that we should be acknowledging and rewarding progress. We should praise games that allow us to pick the gender of our protagonist and don’t appreciably change the way the game’s narrative works (Dragon Age, Fable, Mass Effect). We should praise (and buy!) games that focus on female heroes (Remember Me, Tomb Raider, Metroid, Mirror’s Edge). We should look for games that create equality in gendered terms, whether on the hero side or the victim side (Gears of War 3, Halo Reach, Left 4 Dead).
I don’t think that feminism – in gaming or in the real world – is dead, and I don’t think we’ve arrived, even in “the Western world,” at gender equality (my god, look at the crap going on in the news media right now…). But I also don’t think we’re still living in the proverbial dark ages, and it’s important to support those games, tv, movies, and other media that see that. After all, Hunger Games (for all its flaws) and Game of Thrones has some damn powerful women, and both have been wildly successful. And that’s the message that we as consumers need to send to all the media – that we want to see women who aren’t just “complicated” DIDs, but legitimate heroes in their own right.