Anita Sarkeesian's new series of Feminist Frequency videos debuted on YouTube yesterday. Tropes vs. Women in Video Games is the Kickstarter project that the trolls didn't want you to have because of misconceived notions of what feminist criticism actually is. The fact that Sarkeesian covered really nerdy topics from an academic perspective meant nothing once she tried to raise money for an educational series about the role of women in video games. Hate mail, cyber attacks, and death threats followed in short order, causing the opposite effect the trolls hoped for. Their malicious actions resulted in a wildly successful Kickstarter for Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, earning over 26 times the amount she asked for in short order. The first video in the series is Damsels in Distress: Part 1. Sarkeesian obviously used every cent she earned on producing an excellent series of videos. The production quality is higher than some of the premium YouTube channels paid for by YouTube itself. The images are crisp, the audio clear, and the editing flawless.
The research on the Damsels in Distress trope alone is quite extensive. Sure, she covers the extensive history of Princess Peach and Princess Zelda. Did you expect her to cover the ridiculous studio blunder of Star Fox Adventures? What about name dropping Splatterhouse, Super Adventure Island, and Adventures of Lolo? I actually remember renting Adventures of Lolo and being confused by the gameplay footage on the back of the box that showed the girl as a playable character when you could only start as the boy.
The key to understanding this video is understanding what, exactly, the damsel in distress is. Simply put, when a female character is abducted or put in danger she herself cannot get out of as a plot point, she becomes a damsel in distress. It doesn't matter if the plot point is resolved in five minutes or five hours. When the female character is reduced to a stolen artifact in a game--like a legendary sword or staff--she becomes the damsel in distress.
In the smartest move of the entire project, Anita Sarkeesian has disabled comments on this video series on YouTube. If you doubt the choice, check out any comment thread about this video on a gaming site. Once again, her opinions are dismissed by listing arguments she herself did not make or with straight up lying about what she meant. Of all places, the PA Report thread has one of the more bone-headed discussions going on, with users arguing the video is poorly researched by putting words in Anita's mouth. She does not say that the Damsel in Distress trope is inherently harmful. Her clear implication is that the Damsel in Distress trope is harmful when nothing is done to develop a character beyond her victimhood and the character makes no effort on her own to escape. She obviously did play and research these games, as the trope has no time requirement or even gender/species rescue requirement. If the female character cannot get out of the perilous situation herself, she is a damsel in distress.
Other sites have trolls already bringing up "what about male tropes?" as a way to dismiss her criticism. If you want to start a feminist research project on pervasive male tropes in video games, be my guest. That has never been announced as a goal of this series by Sarkeesian and is nothing more than a strawman argument and a moving of the goal posts when she failed to be the villain the trolls painted her as.
And don't forget the people who claim the video is poorly researched because she didn't cite every example of the Damsel in Distress trope in a 30 minute video on video games. Apparently, not saying that modern romance novels do this, too, invalidates her argument somehow. I don't know how. It's like saying your knowledge of the latest Super Bowl is invalid because you didn't also list every winner of the World Cup when stating the Ravens beat the 49ers. I have to use a troll to English dictionary when I troll trolls for fun and research.
This is not to say I agree with her 100% on the video. Her research into the primate stealing a woman trope is short-changed by almost a century. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is the prototype for everything from King Kong to Donkey Kong. The story involves a bizarre double homicide where mother and daughter are found stuffed in a chimney. Through deduction, the detective in charge of the case realizes no man committed the murder, but an "ourang-outang" aping human behavior. The creature went after the women like his master, a sailor, and then attempted to shave the mother with a straight razor. Instincts kick in and he kills the hysterical daughter, hides the bodies, and flees the scene.
Poe was riffing on a work by Voltaire without a primate that itself was a retelling of a Persian myth. The differences between "Murders in the Rue Morgue" and what Sarkeesian cites in the video are an unhappy ending and print media. The women were damsels in distress far too briefly to ever be saved by anyone. A short story isn't as clear a parallel to video games as a film.
Even if you dismiss the print story as less relevant than the films she cited, the first Murders in the Rue Morgue film predates the first King Kong film by a year. The omission does not invalidate Sarkeesian's argument and may have even happened because of editing. I am just responding to her criticism with my own reading of her research. If my only problem is that a background detail to draw a long-standing trope into an iconic video game is ignored, the research and argument is solid.
I'm very curious to see the modern examples in Part 2 of the video. I hope she did look into Haunting Ground like I suggested in the Kickstarter backer survey. Haunting Ground is a survival horror game where the protagonist is a damsel in distress. Fiona is trapped in castle of an older man (a relative of some sort or other) who threw her in the dungeon after her parents were killed in a car crash. She rescues a big fluffy dog (Hewie, who you just want to cuddle and give treats to) and proceeds to explore the castle. She cannot escape on her own--Hewie does all the heavy lifting--and everyone in the castle is out to get her. The only thing Fiona can do is hide in an armoire to avoid detection. Haunting Ground is a rare example of a passive video game heroine who leads the charge in the story by not actively or voluntarily participating in the darker aspects of the story.
Another interesting modern example would be Ico. This is an award-winning puzzle-platformer/adventure game where a young boy with horns, Ico, saves himself from being sacrificed and frees Yarda, a pale and ghostly damsel in distress, from her cage. The pair traverse a sprawling castle abandoned by all but demonic shadow monsters trying to take Yarda back. Yarda participates in every task, but she has to be guided through like a dog in an agility contest. She refuses to take any risks like Ico and cannot defend herself from attack. The gameplay is compelling, but the unwilling participation of Yarda makes it a very uncomfortable experience.
Here's Tropes vs. Women in Video Games #1: Damsels in Distress: Part 1. What do you think? Share your thoughts below.