You may recall the video I posted in January of Sarkeesian explaining in a TED Talk the overwhelming backlash she got from the male gaming community over her Kickstarter to get this web series off the ground in my post, “When Men Are Boys.” I have that video embedded at the bottom of this post, too, for context. Essentially, Sarkeesian has been making excellent videos about feminism, particularly in the face of culture tropes, and she’s just released the first episode of this new series.
Two additional pieces of context may be helpful to you:
1. Here’s how Ms. Sarkeesian defines “trope” in one of her videos:
A trope is a common pattern in a story or a recognizable attribute in a character that conveys information to the audience. A trope becomes cliche when it’s overused. Sadly, some of these tropes often perpetuate offensive stereotypes.
2. It’s not going to be easy for some people to look at the games they love with new eyes, but as Ms. Sarkeesian explains…
This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters. But remember that it’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.
For a third piece of context, this specifically for this article, I am a man who grew up playing video games and who continues to play video games.
With that set-up, here’s the video: “Damsel in Distress: Part 1 – Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” by Anita Sarkeesian
Amazing, isn’t it?
Ms. Sarkeesian has data on her side. The proof is in the pixels and she uses several tactics to her advantage: explaining the stories behind game development, historical evidence, and the echo effect: lining up example after example side by side to emphasize the wider-reaching ramifications of the issue.
As an adult male who has literally played video games for thirty years (in-home gaming platforms in my life included, in order: IntelliVision, NES, SNES, Game Boy, N64, Gamecube, Wii, Playstation 3, PC, and Droid phones), I wasn’t surprised by the directions Ms. Sarkeesian went. What I was surprised by, instead, was how much I didn’t know about the games I thought I knew so much about.
I knew Princess Peach got kidnapped a lot. I’ve spoken about it in the satirical sense. And ultimately, merely the “Eh, whattaya gonna do?” sense. But what does that constant kidnapping say about her? About women? About men? About boys and girls?
The echo effect of evidence is strong.
Last week, I read the Gospel of Matthew for a seminary class with a small group out loud – the first time I’ve ever done that. I was struck by how parables and moments from the life of Jesus add up together when experienced side-by-side, one after the other, rather than one text per Sunday via the common lectionary or even short texts for personal Scripture study. There’s new impact on me, as the reader, hearing and saying those words all in a row. I was especially struck by Jesus’s “Woe to you, Pharisees!” rant of Matthew 23. Read it before? Yeah. Bits here, bits there? Sure. Out loud, all at once, to others listening, and with gusto? Nope. First time. Powerful.
That’s how it felt to hear Ms. Sarkeesian explain Princess Peach’s recurring damsel role. Or Zelda’s often-damsel and sometimes-disempowered sidekick role. Or seven women from video games across generations, all saying “Help me!” one after the other.
Game development stories have a checkered past with female characters.
There are several specific examples of the trope offered. Ms. Sarkeesian recalls the story of Dinosaur Planet, a game turned into StarFox Adventures. I knew this game had gone through development hell and that’s part of why I never felt compelled enough to play it. I knew it was one game turned into another but it wasn’t until this video that I learned the former lead character had been a 16-year-old female wolf named Crystal and she was still in the game: locked in crystal (Ha!) and clad in a bikini (Ooh-La-La!).
The woman, here, is the object. The game tells the tale of the male protagonist and the female (sometimes, as in Ninja Gaiden III, is referred to as “the girl”) is “taken” merely as the excuse for an adventure, as the goal line. She merely exists for the benefit of his story arc.
We can think of the Super Mario franchise as a grand game being played between Mario and Bowser and Princess Peach’s role is essentially that of the ball. The two men are tossing her back and forth over the course of the main series, each trying to keep and take possession of the ‘damsel ball.’
History is not on equality’s side.
The damsel in distress wasn’t invented by the video game industry. Ms. Sarkeesian goes back to RKO’s King Kong and Fay Wray’s scream heard round the world, middle ages songs and legends, and back even further to Perseus and Andromeda. With a world culture history of hero men saving damsel women, it’s no wonder video games inherited it and, with the almighty dollar at the center of the industry, exploited it. Consider what Ms. Sarkeesian says of Princess Peach and the “Save the Princess Formula” (11:55):
The trope quickly became the go-to motivational hook for developers as it provided an easy way to tap into adolescent male power fantasies in order to sell more games to young straight boys and men.
Or how the player plays as Link but consider what happens to the title princess in The Legend of Zelda games (13:30):
Over the course of more than a dozen games spanning a quarter century, all of the incarnations of Princess Zelda have been kidnapped, cursed, possessed, turned to stone, or otherwise disempowered at some point.
So what? So everything!
There are going to be men out there who say, “So?” Well, the “so” is that female characters are cast aside to give power to male characters. Can we truly pretend this hasn’t rubbed off on video gamers, male and female alike, over the last few decades? Consider Ms. Sarkeesian’s take on this:
The damsel in distress is not just a synonym for “weak.” Instead, it works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones. No matter what we’re told about their magical abilities, skills, or strengths, they’re still ultimately captured or otherwise incapacitated and then must wait for rescue. Distilled down to its essence, the plot device works by trading the disempowerment of female characters for the empowerment of male characters.
When a male character is captured in their game, they’re able to gain back their own freedom through intelligence, cunning, or outright brawn. The female character must await the hero. For example, the opening of Double Dragon is an iconic one for any young man who played this arcade/console classic. However, listen to the way Ms. Sarkeesian describes it, bold emphasis mine (20:20):
The now-iconic opening seconds of the 1987 beat-em-up arcade game Double Dragon has Marion being punched in the stomach, thrown over the shoulder of a thug, and carried away. In several versions her panties are clearly shown to the player while she’s being abducted.
That’s the key.
Even if one really, really wanted to make a case for it being necessary that Marion is punched in the gut, it’s hard to justify the glimpse at her underpants as anything but “fan service.” Those underpants aren’t for the thugs in the game or the heroes who want to rescue her. They’re for me. They’re for 8-year-old me who played this in the arcade in 1987. I remember seeing those underpants. I remember thinking it was “naughty” and dare I say, even possibly titillating just a few years later. Seriously, when she said Double Dragon, I knew exactly what she was going to point out about it. What I was shocked by, however, is that bolded phrase, “shown to the player.”
I had never thought about this before.
And I feel kinda gross.
In all of its remakes and releases this still happens, “ensuring that Marion will be battered and damseled for each new generation to ‘enjoy.'” Here, Ms. Sarkeesian uses what is, to me, the only truly personal editorial comment in the entire video, that gamers can now experience “this regressive crap, yet again, this time in full HD.”
Although, hey, no panties in this HD update! That’s something, right?
Oh, here’s some panties at the 5:40 mark:
Those battle armor panties are being shown to the game’s enemies, right? Certainly not the player…
Who will respond and how?
So why does this matter? Ms. Sarkeesian sums it up nicely in the final moments of the video:
These games don’t exist in a vacuum. They are an increasingly important and influential part of our larger social and cultural eco-system.
Exactly. Like I’ve pointed out many times on this blog, we are a mosaic, a salad, a web. The messages sent in these games, subconscious or overt, are part of that web. They influence whether we realize it or not. And now that we have new insight, new information, new responsibility, what are we going to do about it?
For me, I don’t think it’s possible to go back to “Eh, whattaya gonna do?”
Game developers should be some of the first people to ask themselves this question:
The good news is there’s nothing stopping developers from evolving their gender representations and making more women heroes in their future games.
There’s at least one reason I can think of, unfortunately:
I want to be proven wrong in the worst way, folks.
And to you, Ms. Sarkeesian, I can’t wait for the rest of the series. This video made me think about video games’ influence on me. Thank you for your hard work and dedication.
Ms. Sarkeesian’s TED Talk as I posted in January, “When Men Are Boys.”