I missed the boat on becoming a backer for Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women in Games project, but having been introduced to Feminist Frequency through her Lego videos
just prior to the announcement I was more than excited at the prospect.
Nine months later, does the first video
The first thing I noticed is the length, a pleasingly chunky 23 minutes and change. Assuming all twelve planned videos in the series follow suit this would make for a combined running time of more than four and a half hours. Anita Sarkeesian: The Movie, anyone?
In the past the Feminist Frequency videos have adopted quite an informal tone, akin to a (obviously rehearsed and planned out) vlog. Tropes vs Women takes a somewhat more formal approach, with a structure inspired by documentary techniques. The video opens with an anecdote about the production of Starfox Adventures that demonstrates the trope better than a simple dry explanation. We get the historical and cultural roots of the Damsel in Distress encompassing movies and other pre-game media.
I have to confess the use of the word "trope" in the video series' title made me a little wary, as the usual tvtropes.com approach of simply listing occurances of a particular story element can make for compelling reading but probably wouldn't be very interesting to watch in a video. Thankfully Sarkeesian didn't go down this route, instead focusing on a few popular franchises, even giving some historical background on their development I didn't know about, while demonstrating the ubiquitousness of the tropes with quick video montages. And let me tell you, when you see dozens of distressed damsels lined up ear to ear it really drives home just how prevalent the use of that character is.
One of the things that initially drew me to Sarkeesian's videos is the relatively high production values on display. After wading through so much jaggy edged green-screen and 72-point gothic fonts it was refreshing to see a video made by someone with an ounce of design sense, using a clean, visually simple style. With the extra time and Kickstarter money the Tropes vs Women project pushes the boat out even further on this, with tons of animated graphics that you would usually only see in a video put out by a professional online publication. That said, I'm not overly fond of the rather garish sea blue and pink colour choice on display.
Judging the actual content of the video in terms of discussing the trope is difficult at he moment as this video only covers older examples, with a second part to focus on more recent trends. However it does succinctly demonstrate how pernicious the trope has been in continuing for this long, with franchises like Mario and Zelda endlessly recycling the "kidnapped princess" plot device even when later games in the series at first appear to be subverting it.
Sarkeesian is in a sense hamstrung in this video as the damsel in distress trope is one of the most basic and surface level sexist elements in video games, and as such there just isn't much there to analyse. However, I came away from the video with a renewed understanding and awareness of the pervasiveness of the damsel in distress in games. The fact that this stock character has been so widespread in games speaks volumes about who developers assume their target audience to be,
Focusing as it does on older titles I found a sun-faded photo of a young Anita Sarkeesian sitting enraptured in front of a SNES near the end of the video quite a powerful moment. I think the intention was to head off the inevitable "fake gamer" claims at the pass but it demonstrates that many women and girls have grown up consuming media in which people of their gender are almost universally portrayed as weak and powerless, if they exist at all. You have to look at that young girl and wonder what must have been going through her head at the time, then realize that this is still a daily reality not just in video games but across all media. That's why we need this series, and a dozen more like it.
Welcome back, Anita Sarkeesian. It was worth the wait.