It’s been nearly a year now since Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency launched her Kickstarter campaign for a planned video series about the portrayal of women in videogames. Doesn’t that opening sentence look oh so terribly innocuous? Videogames have become increasingly mainstreamed in recent years, and have a growing influence on media as a whole. In other words, look kids, we’re as becoming as important as books and movies! So, it’s unsurprising that gender studies types would sooner or later get around to analyzing videogames. It’s what they do. I think it’s on their business cards or something: “Writer of academese on gender roles in stuff you watch.”
So, one would have expected this particular fundraiser to get all the attention that the average gender studies article gets, i.e. not much outside of the usual readership. In other words, anyone reading Bitch magazine (which started the original Tropes series) is unlikely to think it’s about the care and feeding of female dogs. They’ve opened up that particular tab on their web browser in order to chomp away on some good old fashioned feminist red meat. Unless they’re vegetarian, of course.
In the eye of the gaming public
she even got a videogame of sorts made about her where intrepid mouthbreathers could virtually punch her
But for whatever reason, Sarkeesian managed to catch the eye of the gaming public. Call it the usual happenstance of viral videos, but pretty soon the series became one of the most talked about YouTube series on games, prompting a lively and honest discussion of women characters as well as the very growing segment of the gamers who are honest to god female. No really, some are.
Just kidding! That’s not what happened, durr. Instead, Sarkeesian got flooded with hate mail and the not yet produced series was roundly attacked by many gamers as the worst thing to happen to gaming since their mom took their Playstation away for a week. Did I say hate mail? That’s putting it a bit mildly. Hey, she even got a videogame of sorts made about her where intrepid mouthbreathers could virtually punch her (in fairness to Newgrounds, the game got taken down pretty quickly for what are hopefully obvious reasons).
All this brouhaha had the effect of launching what would have been a relatively unknown video series into the public limelight. She also ended up raising over $100,000, which was just a smidge more than the $6000 she had asked for. Good job, haters, you sure showed that feminazi what’s what! What’s that you say? She probably created the whole scandal just to scam people out of money so she could disappear to the Island of the Amazons where man-hating hotties lounge about in chainmail bikinis, giving each other massages while playing the latest Xbox releases? I’m pretty sure I read about that particular conspiracy theory somewhere. Probably on some game forum. The Truth is Out There. Waaaaaaaay out there, that is.
The crazy thing about all this nonsense is that it’s happening now, rather than ten years ago. Women are a larger and larger segment of the gaming audience. The majority of casual gamers are female, and even the more “hardcore” games have player bases that range from 20-40% female, depending on what metrics are used. But maybe that’s just it. It’s a way for some to wave that “No Gurlz allowed!” banner over their clubhouse in the face of the invading horde. Presumably, the parties responsible just want to huddle together with their bromance partners in a blissfully non-girly place where they can use all the sexist language and imagery they want, all the while whining about how all the girls they know won’t sleep with nice guys like them.
Most gamers were suitably appalled or at least embarrassed by all this, of course. And therein lies the problem with discussing the video series. Speaking as someone who hopes for the day when videogames will be regarded in the same light as other media, it’s difficult to approach this particular contretemps with objectivity. We want to say “Hey, that’s not what the gaming public is about, most of us are down with all that equality stuff!” And that’s true. But there’s a difference between agreeing with someone that an issue exists and thinking that they have something new to say on the subject.
Not intrinsically engaging
What I would like more than anything else would be to say that this is a wonderfully insightful series of videos that nail down exactly why videogame narratives and imagery are so often blatantly sexist. Sadly, that’s not what Sarkeesian addresses, at least in the first Tropes vs. Women video. Instead, she seems focused on simply identifying sexist imagery in games.
To an extent, this is okay. After all, sometimes tropes are so prevalent that we don’t stop to reflect and think “Hmmm…yeah, I guess I can see how a boss fight that involves throwing watermelons at a black faced minstrel might offend some people.” But I think that ignores the bigger issue of why games often use these sexist clichés. Or, for that matter, making a case that there’s something wrong with their use. It’s only fiction, right? I don’t hold with the “it’s only make believe, get over it” line myself, but there are many who do. Just calling them bad people who use bad tropes and should feel bad convinces no one. And in order to effect change, we need to win hearts and minds.
That said, one critiques the video one brings to the war, not the army you wish you had. Or something like that. Bottom line, what did all these Kickstarter supporters get for their money?
The first tropes installment feels more than a little bit like those classroom videos you were forced to watch when your university couldn’t fork out for actual professors.
The video is perhaps unsurprisingly not intrinsically engaging. Sarkeesian is, after all, a post-grad type and comes from a world filled with academic videos delivered by talking heads. The first tropes installment feels more than a little bit like those classroom videos you were forced to watch when your university couldn’t fork out for actual professors. Seriously, anytime I hear the words “In this video we will be examining…”, my eyelids start to feel heavy. The video is filled with often irrelevant trivia, as when Sarkeesian explains that damsel is derived from the French word demoiselle. One has to fight the urge to scribble that down, as it clearly will be on the test later.
Snarking about delivery style aside, what about what she has to say? The central premise of the first video is inarguable: there’s this trope about the Damsel in Distress, it’s an old trope, and it portrays the woman in the trope as someone to be rescued rather than an active protagonist.
Sarkeesian starts off with a compelling example of how this trope can be destructive to a formerly egalitarian narrative. She discusses the case of Crystal from Dinosaur Planet, who was originally supposed to be a protagonist in her own right but was downgraded by the time she appeared as part of the Starfox franchise. Crystal had been transformed from action hero to someone who exists primarily to be rescued. She even gets a cheesy sax solo when she makes her onscreen appearance, lest we be confused about her purpose in the game: to wit, to motivate the more important male character through the power of hormones.
There’s a lot wrong with this, but above all else, it meant that girls playing the game no longer had a female character to play. As trivial as that might sound, it’s not. The young adult set likes to have protagonists they can identify with, as the editor for any YA publishing house will tell you. Heck, they’ve even done studies on the issue. The why of the decision to sideline Crystal is a big question, as is the fact that the developers clearly saw nothing wrong with it. Personally, I don’t think this was because the devs were mean women haters, but rather because the trope was already so prevalent in videogames and other media that no one thought twice about including it. It would be as if someone had an objection to the double jump.
This discussion makes for a good start to the video, and one that raises a number of questions that beg closer examination. Unfortunately, Sarkeesian then drops this point in order to explore the history of the Damsel in Distress trope. For upwards of eleven minutes, she traces its origins and evolution, which is saying quite a bit for a twenty three minute long movie. Seriously, she starts with ancient Greek myth, passes by medieval romances, gives us some clips of old time movies with women tied to railroad tracks, and finishes up with women getting nabbed by gorillas in Tarzan movies and, of course, King Kong. I’m surprised she didn’t mention all those Bug Eyed Monsters of the fifties who seemed to want nothing more than implied sexytimes with a human female. Or for that matter a million odd karate movies, action movies or….heck, any movie with a woman in it. I suspect she just ran out of time.
Damsel in distress
When she gets back to the topic of videogames, Sarkeesian hits her stride again. It’s what she really wanted to talk about, after all. And she proceeds to list game after game that uses the Damsel in Distress trope. But this time, I totally get why she had to do that. Yes, damsels in distress existed in Arthurian legends. Knock me over with a feather, why don’t you? There’s lots of other stories in the media ocean, and anyway, that was then, this is now. While we’d be big time fibbing if we said that modern literature and movies are free of sexism, there’s no arguing that there’s plenty of empowered (if I can use that word in public) heroines out there, too.
But boy, oh boy, that trope is still super popular in videogames. Really, the only way to make that point is by showing the viewer just how many games use it. You can raise your right hand and say “But…Samus/Alyxx Vance/Female Shepard!” all you want, but that doesn’t change the existence of the hordes of games that use women as a prize. And a lot of them were and are really popular. So, color me as convinced here, especially when she points out that there’s almost a willful refusal to “un-Damsel” characters like Princess Peach. They occasionally get their moment in the action sun, then it’s back to the high tower for them to await rescue.
Sarkeesian freely admits that there not all characters who spend time as a Damsel in Distress are completely helpless. It makes for a bit of equivocation as she proceeds to make Aristotelian distinctions between such tropes as the Smooch of Victory and Damsel in Distress. Is a powerful sidekick who needs rescue (like Zelda) just a variant on Damsel in Distress? Does any of that matter? Are we really having a discussion about what constitutes the subcomponents of a trope? Leave that stuff on the messages boards over at TV Tropes.
I found myself wanting a deeper discussion here.
I found myself wanting a deeper discussion here. Why is the Damsel in Distress trope so prevalent? Has it changed over the years? Has its use waned in other media but remained popular in videogames? Heck, is it always a bad thing or is the real problem just that it’s so overwhelmingly used instead of other scenarios? I find myself leaning towards the last viewpoint: there’s not necessarily anything wrong with rescuing a female hostage in a storyline. But it is a problem when that trope edges out other storylines with female characters who are more empowered (doh! I said it again).
It all adds up to a big build up that raises questions that Sarkeesian didn’t address, let alone try to answer. I have to wonder if she was trying to answer her critics here. By doing a largely impassionate “review of the literature”, it’s almost as if she’s trying to play the role of a purely objective reporter rather than the editorialist that she is. Sarkeesian has been accused of having an “agenda”: that is, an opinion that differs from the critic’s worldview. Was she trying to answer that critique by hiding behind a shield of pure objectivity? Facts are harder to dispute than analysis, after all.
she’s at her best when she drops the academic monotone.
Frankly, that’s silly, because she’s at her best when she drops the academic monotone. I liked the video the best when she got her back up. She was totally on fire when discussing the girl bashing introduction to Double Dragon, complete with the obligatory panty shot. I have to admit– that part jarred me into understanding her anger about the intro. I would have originally just said, “Hey, it’s the villain doing all that. He’s supposed to be evil.” But as you watch it repeat, its subtext of sexualized violence becomes all too clear.
As uneven as I found this first installment, if nothing else Sarkeesian should be commended for bringing up an uncomfortable subject that many of us in the industry really don’t feel like addressing. So often the discussion about sexism in games falls back on being embarrassed by characters in silly skimpy outfits. Yet, believe it or not, that’s not the real issue here. I’d encourage anyone interested in the subject to watch the excellent video series from a panel on women in gaming at PAX East 2011 To a woman, they said what should perhaps be obvious: they wanted well written, real female characters who are in control of their destiny, rather than passive observers of events. In other words, the foundation for any good game character.
As Sarkeesian puts it, the overuse of the Damsel in Distress trope “trades disempowerment of female characters for the empowerment of male characters.” And it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s room for well-drawn, active characters of all genders and backgrounds in videogames. Active participation in the narrative by female characters should be the rule, not the exception.
And if all this video series has done is to say that and get us talking about how to change the status quo, it’s done its job.
I’ll end with a cute little video. Recently, a father introduced his little girl to the game Donkey Kong, but she was dismayed that she couldn’t play as Pauline. With a little bit of hacking, he fixed it for her and Pauline speeds off to rescue Mario. It’s sweet, but one has to wonder how many girls over the decades longed for this option. It doesn’t have to be that way.