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Tropes? Damsels In Distress? My Critique.


Anita Sarkeesian finally released her first video. To be honest, I was actually expecting it to be much worse. I think my low expectations led me to be fairly impressed. I donít really have a problem with Sarkeesianís idea of pointing out ďtropes vs womenĒ as an attempt to help avoid boring cliches and enrich gaming experiences. To be honest, that sounds like a great general thing to do. Iíd like to see less tropes regardless of the characterís gender. After watching her first video on the damsel in distress, I actually agree with her to a certain extent. My problem with Sarkeesian boils down to her completely inaccurate statements from her original Kickstarter video. They are:

"Have you ever noticed that with a few notable exceptions basically all female characters in video game fall into a small handful of cliches and stereotypes?"

This isnít true. There are A LOT of exceptions. If a game involves boring cliches with the female characterís, chances are that they apply to the male characters in the game too. This isnít a female specific issue. Itís genderless.

"Unfortunately, in addition to all of these benefits, many games tend to reinforce and amplify sexist and downright misogynist ideas about women."

Nope. They donít. Iíve played thousands of games in my lifetime and I donít ever remember a single misogynistic moment in any of them. I also explained how they arenít sexist in a previous blog.

The tropes that Anita mentions are pretty vague and can either be applied equally to men, can have an alternative analysis that shows that itís the male who is actually being stereotyped, or there is a male specific trope that is just as bad. Letís take a look at the things she calls ďtropesĒ:

Damsel In Distress: I guess women arenít good enough to want to save or protect them. But, hey. This one is a legit trope. Letís give it to her.

The Fighting Fucktoy: Based on the other trope names, it looks like she didnít want to call this one ďthe sexy heroineĒ.

The Sexy Sidekick: I guess female characters arenít allowed to be sexy... or sidekicks.

The Sexy Villainess: I guess female characters arenít allowed to be villains.. or sexy.

Women as Background Decoration: NPCs? Women arenít allowed to be background decorations either, apparently.

When you look at every potential character of any kind in any game, what do you have? A hero or heroes, their sidekicks, the villains, and the NPCs. You can pick ANY male character and heíll fit into one of those categories too and very frequently heíll also be ďsexyĒ. These arenít tropes. These are general character categories. The only real trope here is the damsel in distress. Let's hope her videos prove me wrong on my assumptions.

The damsel in distress trope can be further generalized into an ďanything in distressĒ trope. There are probably just as many video games and stories about saving the world or land or people from some great evil. Why are the heroes always trying to save the land? Why do these tropes portray ordinary people as weak and helpless? Why does it reinforce the idea that society should look down on.... society? With the exception of religious fundamentalists, does anyone in real life go around calling for a hero to save the world? No. So why would this trope reinforce any idea of female weakness or objectivity. Why canít it just be what it is?

Hereís an alternative analysis. Perhaps this trope reinforces a completely different idea. Maybe it reinforces the idea that females are worth saving and protecting and men are not. Females are looked upon greatly while men are nothing more than tools to defend them. The life of the male, even in videogames, is of little concern. Usually, especially in older games, you have to lose many lives in order to accomplish the task of saving the woman. Even in real life, we always focus on saving women and children first while men come last. Lifeboats? Burning buildings? In wars we send the men off to fight and die while keeping the women out of harmís way. So when we speak of objectification, which would you rather be? A tool of war that can easily be discarded and replaced or a beautiful prize to be fought over and won? Virtually every single RTS game has exclusively or mostly male troops. Is this also sexist or misanthropic? Iíll go set up ďTropes vs Men In VideogamesĒ now.

Even though I can agree with her to an extent on the damsel in distress trope, if she sent me all of the cherries she picked in the process of making this video, I could bake a few pies. The majority of her video was focused on three Nintendo IPs: Donkey Kong, Zelda, and Mario. When she mentions Zelda and Mario in particular, notice how she only focuses on what she calls the ďcoreĒ titles. Zelda and Mario have always had a framework for each title. If you take out part of that framework, they become spin-offs instead of core titles, donít they? Could you imagine a Call of Duty that doesnít involve fighting in a war or fighting terrorists? Could you imagine a Final Fantasy that doesnít include chocobos or a character named Cid? No? Then why would you complain about a ďcoreĒ Mario game involving Peach getting kidnapped by Bowser?

What would you even call a game where you play Peach and rescue Mario? Oh, I know! ďSuper Princess PeachĒ! And that just happens to be a real game. So Nintendo already gave into these kinds of demands and Sarkeesian is still attacking them? When you look at the broader Mario franchise, Peach is a playable character in many of them. Why does she only focus on the ďcoreĒ Mario titles? Perhaps because then her argument isnít nearly as strong. Pass the cherry juice please!

Now onto Zelda. Iím no expert on Zelda but I have played and beaten a few titles. Her argument isnít quite as strong with Zelda because, as she mentions in the video, Zelda plays an important role in many of the games. She doesnít usually sit idly by and wait for Link to come to her rescue. She still states that the trope applies which is fine. But even I can still point out an inconsistency in a Zelda title. She never once mentions Midna from Twilight Princess who helps Link escape from a prison by breaking his shackles. Midna acts as a massively helpful character through the entire game. At certain parts, I felt as if I was a side character in Midna's story. In Linkís Awakening, Link appears to be saved by a girl, Marin, who finds Link washed ashore on a beach. There was no Zelda to be saving in that title either. It was entirely about waking the windfish.

Sarkeesian is right on this much so far. The ďdamsel in distressĒ is a real trope. But it doesnít really exist as much anymore and where it does exist, it isnít as blatant. So Sarkeesian already has her wish partly granted with this trope. As for the Zelda and Mario titles, I happen to like going to rescue the princess. Itís what I expect. Itís part of why I buy the games. After saving Peach 13 times, whatís one more going to hurt? She had to cherry pick pretty hard to come up with her examples. She claimed ďhundredsĒ of examples but didnít even show a tiny fraction of that number. And for being a trope thatís supposedly one of the biggest violators, I expected far more. Youíll also notice how she focused primarily on much older titles. And even then, if you look at alternate entries in those titles, there is no longer a damsel in distress. In Adventures of Lolo 3, LaLa is right by LoLoís side.

This trope was an easy one. Iíll give it to her. Since sheís working on a part two of this particular trope, Iíll hold off on too much more criticism and end my rant here. But Iím very interested in seeing how she does the other ďtropesĒ that arenít really tropes. Iíd also like to hear her actual solutions. What does a well developed female character that doesnít fall into your trope categories entail? Can you give us examples of these wonderful female characters? Iím looking forward to her future videos.

Some other stuff:

I borrowed Girlwriteswhat's argument from her popular youtube video and applied it to this trope.

There's also this other girl who completely destroys the "objectification" accusation that feminists frequently use. I recommend watching these video and subscribing to both of these ladies.

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About bustaballsone of us since 6:19 PM on 12.31.2008