Anita Sarkeesian's new videoTropes vs. Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress (Part 2) premiered today on YouTube. Sarkeesian, the creator of Feminist Frequency, lays out her purpose in creating videos right at the start. This is the clearest I've ever seen her (or any media critic, for that matter) explain why we find it necessary to closely examine media we're drawn to.
Over the course of this series I will be offering critical analysis of many popular games and characters, but please keep in mind that it’s both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.
This is not about instantly being against a subject because it features something objectionable under a certain school of theory. This is about examining something you enjoy to understand the quirks of how it works and why it chooses to characterize certain aspects with certain tropes and shorthand. It's about the impact of the institutionalized choices of media on the greater world.
Unsurprisingly, before I even got a chance to watch Tropes vs. Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress (Part 2), the trolls that attempted to destroy Sarkeesian's Kickstarter campaign already got it falsely flagged off of YouTube. It was an easy enough fix to get the video online again since there is no hate speech or TOS-violating content contained within.
Much like Part 1, I'm going to do another response to Sarkeesian's video. I walked away very impressed with the construction of the argument and the research the last time. Will Part 2, dedicated to the "dark and edgy" Damsel in Distress style, be as strong?
Part 2 is grounded in Sarkeesian's research into games that teetered on multiple tropes. It's hard to argue against anything she says when she can reduce plot points for many games in a row to "his wife is murdered and he must save his daughter." The exercise becomes so frustrating that, when exploring how game developers combine the Damsel in Distress (female character kidnapped and incapable of being freed without a male character's help) with the Woman in the Refrigerator (female character brutally murdered to advance story/character arc of male character), Anita Sarkeesian actually facepalms. No, seriously. Look.
It only gets worse from there, people. Sarkeesian starts discussing the combination of the Damsel in Distress with the Mercy Killing (where a character is killed to save them from a worse fate). She's defined a lot of terms in her Feminist Frequency series but none have hit me so strong as "The Euthanized Damsel." We're led to believe that the best thing for a female character who has already been trapped in a perilous situation she can't get herself out of is death. Not freedom, not a chance to return to a normal life, but death.
When was the male hero who couldn't even stop the bad guy the first time they met suddenly upgraded to the status of God? How is it that game developers think executing the victim is a compelling or thought-provoking ending? I share Sarkeesian's disgust with this trope combo. Most cases are lazy, manipulative writing and their screenwriters deserve to be named and shamed. There is a world of difference between double tapping a zombie bite victim who played a big role in the story before they transform and double tapping a victim whose only role in the story was a treasure to be reclaimed by another character.
The next segment focuses on an even more absurd spin on the same trope. The only difference is that you beat a woman who you are dating or related to until the evil escapes or she dies peacefully. The only way to advance in the narrative is domestic violence and the women are literally asking for it. This is the part where I facepalmed. I don't know how I managed to avoid so many of these games, but I'm kind of glad I did.
This is also the part in Part 2 where I disagree with Anita Sarkeesian's analyis. She attempts to tie real life violence against women to in-game violence against women in the same way the NRA attempts to tie violence in video games to violence in real life. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that playing out these terrible scenarios in games actually has an impact on how the gamer behaves in real life. She backtracks in her conclusion, but the rhetoric is briefly identical to anti-video game advocates. The trivialization of the social narrative surrounding violence against women is all too real, but her attempt to tie-in real life violence is a stretch.
Her conclusion, however, is very strong. The discussion of mechanics as an accidental function of sexism is brilliant. If the most popular video games rely on violence to tell their story, the only way to conclude the story is with more violence. If the story hinges on abducting a female character, violence must be used to resolve the abduction of the female character. Until game developers find a new way of telling these stories, the darker spins on the Damsel in Distress trope will all too easily rely on violence against women to create a grander story.
She continues to describe how the motivation for the male character to save the Damsel in Distress might be masculinity, not altruism. The hero has something precious stolen from them by a stronger villain. He feels anguish and pain about his loss and begins to rely on violence and mayhem to reclaim what he lost. Is he fighting to save the girl or to save his own image of himself?
Sarkeesian ends with examples of darker, edgier games that don't use violence to explore the Damsel in Distress. Dear Esther, one of my favorites, is all about exploring an island while writing a letter to the love you lost long ago. Passage, a short online game, has a male protagonist travel with his partner through varied locations as time literally pushes them closer to tragedy. In To the Moon, an rpg/adventure game, a male and female doctor must explore the memories of a man on his death bed to discover his true motivation for wanting to visit the moon through artificial memories; they uncover his anguish over the loss of his wife and try to piece together how he became so sick and lonely.
In all of these games, a male protagonist deals with loss--by distance, by disease, or by death--without violence. The women who drive the plot are still Damsels in Distress, stolen away by forces beyond their control. The games focus on genuine emotion and the relationship between the male protagonist and their lost Damsel.
Tropes vs. Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress (Part 2) is another great entry in the series. Once again, I only have one minor bone to pick with Sarkeesian in her argument/research. Otherwise, her feminist critique is spot on and hard to argue against. My one complaint does not detract from her strong research and argumentation. It's a rhetorical complaint, perhaps the most nitpicky of all criticisms in this format.
In Part 3, Anita Sarkeesian is going to look at games that flip the script on Damsels in Distress. She's also going to explore Dudes in Distress, which isn't as rare as you would think if you look at survival horror games. Team-building games like Obscure and macho fantasies like Cursed Mountain are filled with male characters saving male characters who can't save themselves.
Here's Part 2. It features and discusses graphic violence, so you might want to wait until you're not at work to watch. Share your thoughts on the video and atypical Damsels/Dudes in Distress games below.