So, Anita Sarkeesian has completed her "Damsel in Distress" trilogy. In the first video, she introduced the trope and gave some historical background to it. She spoke of how the male rescuer was the subject and the woman was object and that this was a form of objectification of women, where woman was reduced to a prize, treasure or goal - essentially a damsel-ball fought over by men, where the female is presented as fundamentally weak, reduced to a state of victim.
In the second video, she divided the trope down into various sub-categories like the "women in refrigerators" (essentially your wife is murdered and you have to rescue your child or her soul) and the "euthanized damsel" (where the damsel must be killed). She further related the euthanized damsel, where the woman is often transformed, cursed, badly injured and begs for you to kill her, to domestic violence. Specifically that when men kill women, these abusive men often state that their female targets deserved it, wanted it, or were asking for it. I find this allusion to be rather forced, because up until the moment the male hero is asked to kill the woman, he is not the one to have inflicted the violence on her that results in her request to die - this is done by the "bad guy".
To conclude her "Damsel in Distress" trilogy of videos, Ms. Sarkeesian presented some examples of the "dude in distress", which she dismissed as irrelevant because it's not as commonly used, and because the occasional helpless male character does not perpetuate any form of stereotype about men being weak and in need of rescue. We need to think beyond the cliche altogether and that humorous or satiric views of this old trope were a sexist parody, rather than a parody of the sexism. She then presented her own game concept that would be a "true subversion of the trope". The captured damsel gets tired of being imprisoned, she frees herself from her cell, acquires a more practical outfit, some weapons, and she escapes the castle. After her escape, she levels up her skills (with an emphasis on stealth) and saves the Kingdom.
he problem with this game concept is:
Dark Souls: Your female character starts out locked in a dungeon... though the key is also in there with you (thank goodness). You of course find a variety of low level weapons or armor as you make your escape from the dungeon area.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Your female character starts the game dead... in an underground dungeon that is under attack. You come back from the dead and must escape the dungeon and as you do so, you find new equipment, armor and learn about your skills. In trying to find out who killed you, you find out that you are the "fateless one", the only woman capable of saving the world from a terrible evil.
Oblivion: You, as a female, begin the game in a dungeon, and when King Jean Luc Picard needs to escape the castle through a secret door in your cell, you are given the opportunity to escape the dungeon. You acquire weapons and armor as you escape. Soon you find you are the only one capable of saving the kingdom from Evil.
Fallout 3: Your female vault dweller get to spend a bit of time growing up and experiencing "the vault" before the evil paranoid Overseer sends his forces after you ... and once again, you must escape the vault to begin the main part of the game where you go out into the world in a search for your father, and along the way make decisions that influence the world order.
Baldur's Gate 2: Your female avatar begins the game in a cage being held prisoner in Irenicus' dungeon. You free yourself and proceed to free other prisoners from their cages too. You make your escape from the dungeon with your newly formed party of male and female former prisoners. Yes, you will get better armor and weapons and eventually save the world.
Skyrim: A dragon attack on the prison allows your female prisoner the opportunity to escape... and yes, you acquire weapons, armor, skills... in order to save the Kingdom.
(and these are just the games I've personally played and happen to remember off the top of my head!)
Being a woman I've often played game genres where I can choose to play as my own gender. This game that Ms. Sarkeesian has unfortunately suggested is a plot trope that has been used over and over and over again in most WRPG games where at some point in the game (often the beginning or sometimes during the game if you commit a crime) you will be imprisoned, you will not have any of your "stuff" and you will have to escape and acquire or re-acquire your armor and weapons. You then level up and eventually save the Kingdom. This plot trope is as old in gaming as the "damsel in distress" trope. Ms. Sarkeesian has merely suggested replacing one trope with another trope. The unfortunate choice of worn out plot trope she has suggested is the exact game that most gamers who choose to play as female characters have already been playing since WRPG games were invented.
... so, a plea to developers, please don't make her game. I truly am tired of starting games as a captured woman who has to escape while acquiring better amour and weapons so that I can have adventures that make me stronger so that I can save the Kingdom. Can't I start the game as an orphan who's village has been destroyed, and in my quest to discover the vile evil-doer that destroyed my village I discover I"m the gifted offspring of nobles, and the only one with a special power that allows me to save the Kingdom? Wait... yeah, that one might not be such a good idea either. :)
I'm not sure if Ms. Sarkeesian is unfamiliar with gaming as a whole, or if she is just unfamiliar with WRPG games in specific... but if her main interest is female protagonists I'm rather aghast that she seems so unfamiliar with one of the few genres of gaming where there is almost always the option to play as a female (fighter games being one of the other options). I'm also a bit upset that her game plot suggestion is the very same plot most female gamers are already playing. What she seems to prove more than anything else with this game suggestion is that character gender really doesn't matter because her suggested plot is a trope that has been used in games with gender swappable protagonists for a long time now. Possibly she thought that by emphasizing the "stealth" option that she was getting away from her own perception that violence is a more male attribute. The problem is that with most WRPG games, male OR female characters can usually choose a rogue/stealth class, a mage/healer class or a tank/warrior class. The stealth and mage classes are less violent options than the more direct warrior class, and again it's rare to see classes restricted by gender (though some early games did do this and the female character was almost always a stealth or mage class). In Dragon's Dogma, the WRPG game I'm currently playing, my own class is a more assertive class where I can wield my knives and get in very close for the kill. My main pawn (an NPC character we create) is a male mage - who only uses support magic and can only heal, buff or de-buff but has almost no attack abilities. Gender roles are quite flexible in games... if one chooses to look for the many games that allow for this, instead of the many games that support more sexist narrative.
With each successive video, Anita Sarkeesian seems to lose relevance. She doesn't seem to understand gaming as an industry as was illustrated after the Xbox E3 presentation when she tweeted about the lack of female protagonist and then of course spoke about the backlash and how "this is what it’s like to be a female video game critic on twitter". No, this is what it's like to be so narrowly focused on feminism, that you don't understand the dramatic importance of what Microsoft announced at E3. The Xbox One E3 conference presented gamers with a console that was higher priced than expected, had restrictive DRM that required an internet connection and did away with retail games to go almost entirely digital. An always-on Kinect was no longer a peripheral, but part of the system and then of course there was the issue of the perceived "rape joke"... yet her concern was the lack of female protagonists shown? What she did was the equivalent of seeing a news bite about a bombing at a military base and initial reports of 20 men being killed and her asking if any women were injured. Yes, it might be a valid question, but in the context of the greater tragedy, it seems rather thoughtless and unconsidered.
She presented the "damsel in distress" trope as a negative in an academic, pedagogic sense, but seems only able to tangentially connect the trope to real world behavior, statistics, studies or issues and doesn't seem able to adequately express the negativity of the trope in a way that makes it truly relevant - essentially she is facing the same issue of those that feel the violence in video games make people more violent. There is simply no conclusive evidence either way that video game violence affects real life behavior, and likewise there is no proof that sexism in games makes people more sexist. Her "subversion of the trope" and game suggestion is unfortunately a trope that is just as tired and worn out as the trope it is replacing, and particularly for female gamers that already play as female characters in video games, her suggestion is one of the few plot mechanics that we've become rather tired of playing.
What bothers me the most though is that she has approached the entire trope from a negative viewpoint and seems unable to see the positive aspects of this trope. From a feminist perspective, the trope of rescuing the "damsel in distress" can also be viewed in the same way as the current world wide "Ring the Bell" program is viewed. The program seeks to engage men in an effort stop violence against women. In it's simplest terms, the program asks men not to ignore a damsel in distress, or to assume that she will escape on her own, but rather than men should (in the words of Ban Kee-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations)
"Break the Silence. When you witness violence against women and girls, do not sit back. Act."
Now the recommendation isn't that men seek out the abuser and kill him in a massive boss battle, rather that they simply try to intercede. If they hear a woman screaming for help next door, that maybe they shouldn't simply close their windows and turn up the TV... but rather they should go next door and "ring the bell". They needn't do anything more than ask the time, but the interruption and knowledge that others are watching may be enough to temporarily stop the violence and even allow the woman to escape. Unlike video games, the "hero" may not have to go through many battles and tribulations to help the damsel, but rather it could be as simple as what an ordinary man with a rather questionable past in Cleveland did. When he heard a woman screaming for help, he didn't turn away, but investigated. He then helped smash in the door so that she and her child could escape. The woman turned out to be Amanda Berry, a woman who had been kidnapped 10 years ago. Essentially, the Ring the Bell or One Million Men, One Million Promises campaign is not all that dissimilar to the basic lesson of the "damsel in distress" trope in video games - a hero is the one who doesn't hurt women and doesn't turn away from a woman's cries for help.... and that the bad men who do hurt women should see justice through our legal system.
While Sarkeesian is right that this trope may promote an image that women are disempowered and unable to help themselves, the reality is that the Ring the Bell Program has been extremely successful in India and has since spread to other Countries. Console video games have always had a primarily male audience (though this is starting to change) and a message aimed at men is exactly what many Violence against Women programs are now using as an effective tool. These programs have a simple message - if a damsel is in distress - help her! Violence against women is wrong and we are all responsible for ending it. The trope additionally reinforces that bad people are the one's who kidnap or do harm to the damsel, the good people are the one's doing the rescuing or helping. I don't necessarily see this as entirely bad, and the fact is that many feminist organizations do now support programs with a similar message that seek to engage men as partners in stopping violence against women through education and action.
"The focus of bystander intervention programs is to provide the majority of men who are uncomfortable with these men's behavior with the permission and skills to confront them. Bystander interventions move beyond empathy and individual change to make men responsible for changing the larger environment of how men relate to each other and to women. This can change the peer culture that fosters and tolerates men's violence."
Now of course, this positive feminist spin on the trope isn't any more "right" than Ms. Sarkeesian's view. They are simply different perspectives, which brings me to the question, "is Feminist Frequency and the Tropes vs Women in Gaming relevant?" Perhaps surprisingly, my answer is yes. Ms. Sarkeesian seems to lack a knowledge of the broader spectrum of games and the gaming industry, and her form of feminism is even debatable within today's much more diverse forms of feminism, however, gaming is massive and it's nearly impossible for anyone to be familiar with all of gaming, and feminism is constantly changing with so many varying philosophies, that it would be very difficult to represent them all (particularly as there are so many opposing philosophies). What she has succeeded in doing is creating intelligent conversation and debate in the gamer community and industry by picking examples from gaming that represent a fairly "feminism 101" academic liberal feminism based on patriarchal theory, rather than some of the more diverse forms of feminism. The very fact that her views are quite narrow and one-sided have been a catalyst for debate and discussion, and with her Degree in Communications, she may even be aware that bias and opinion evokes controversy more so than a dry analysis filled with facts and statistics that are more difficult to debate than opinion. I just hope that developers are listening to all the voices out there and are realizing that no one perspective is right or wrong, rather that gaming simply needs more variety and should be more inclusive. I also hope that the mainstream press starts to see these other voices. Unfortunately, the mainstream press has not focused at all on what Ms. Sarkeesian has to say regarding video games, but instead is entirely focused on the harassment that she highlights with her many blogs that cherry pick the vile, sexist comments, while she never addresses and actively hides the more intelligent, well informed, reasonable comments. Unfortunately her mainstream fame is based more on her status as a victim rather than the validity of her work, and the mainstream press uses this to perpetuate an image that games and gaming are not welcoming to all women, which is simply untrue.
The next topic that Ms. Sarkeesian is to tackle in her Tropes Vs Women in Gaming series is the "fighting f*cktoy" - which should be interesting because of her previously expressed dislike for sex positive feminism, her dislike of Bayonetta (who some feminists see as a positive figure) and specifically her dislike of the "slutwalk" concept. We'll probably have to wait several months... but once again, I'm sure her views will be a catalyst for interesting conversation! I have to say on a personal note that I always considered myself a feminist before Ms. Sarkeesian gained fame and with her came the "all women are victims" and "gaming is sexist" messages. This upset me greatly and was contrary to my own beliefs and experiences, but it did encourage me to look at feminism and what it has become since my own youth many years ago. The diversity of philosophies is confusing and maddening, but it's also heartening for me to see things like intersectional feminism, the rise of "Gender Studies" rather than "Women's Studies", gay marriage being legalized, and more recently a third gender being officially recognized in Countries such as Germany. I hope that eventually society may look back at gaming not as the sexist oppression of women, but rather as being ahead of it's time by having gender swappable characters, by having simple stories that aren't inherently male or female, by even having a "gender slider" in games like Saint's Row. Since the earliest games we've all seen that message... the one that reads:
"your choice of gender will not affect gameplay".
Wouldn't it indeed be a wonderful world if every child was born with that message. Maybe gaming truly is just ahead of it's time and possibly this is the better social lesson to be learned from video games... because sometimes a story, is just a story.
(and as reference for anyone interested... this is an earlier blog regarding my hopes for her Damsel in Distress series before it premiered: Damsel in Distress.... )
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About Elsaone of us since 2:27 PM on 01.25.2009
I'm 52 years old, I'm female, I'm happily married, I'm retired from the work force... and I spend way too much time gaming. I enjoy long walks on the beach, with a gun, sometimes with my husband - shooting n00bs.
I not only like to shoot people, I also enjoy cooking and crafting. Mostly I make my own armor in games like Skyrim and cook my own potions after a busy day of hacking and slashing my way through various critters, guards and bandits in most any WRPG game.
If you're into a threesome or foursome with a mature couple, then come join us - only be sure to bring a med kit. We're old, sometimes we fall down and can't get back up without some help!
PSN: Elsa XBL: Elssa62 Playstation Gamer Advisory Panel Member (GAP)
Currently Playing: PS3:
Dark Souls/Demon Souls
Black Ops 2
... and occasionally Warhawk, Starhawk, or Killzone 3!
Xbox: Currently gathering dust... prefer PS Plus to paying for Gold.
iOS (iPad and iPod Touch) mostly casual word games... I do love my word games!
My current addiction is Words with Monsters
Recent Favorites: WARHAWK!!
MAG (over 2000 hours!)
Demon Souls/Dark Souls
Elder Scrolls Series (Oblivion and Skyrim)
Dragon Age series
Left 4 Dead 2
Mass Effect Series
Far Cry Series
Destiny (strangely addicting)