The third episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games premiered a few days ago and Anita Sarkeesian knocked it out of the park. Any doubts I had about her argumentation so far were quelled with the third Damsel in Distress video. This video focuses on flipping the Damsel in Distress trope and points out examples of female characters having to saved trapped male characters that are almost as disturbing as Bionic Commander.
I remember when Super Princess Peach came out. I really loved the gameplay, but hated the concept. Peach's powers in the platformer are based on emotions. She's incapable of beating the game without wielding her emotions as a weapon. Sarkeesian takes it a step forward, claiming the gameplay mechanic is a "PMS joke," which isn't a stretch at all.
Even more upsetting is how the titular princess isn't even included in the cut scenes of her own story; everything is about the boy who was transformed into her weaponized parasol. Peach can't even be the hero of her own narrative without literally relying on a male character to guide her.
After a few more examples (scant ones at that), Sarkeesian goes into the actual critique of the gender reversed Damsel in Distress game. Flipping genders does not create true equality. The male characters do not have centuries of being treated as a prize to collect for heroism to contend with like female characters do. Even if the cultural context showed a male Damsel in Distress as something negative, it would still be retaliating against a negative trope by encouraging a negative trope.
Sarkeesian also addresses the gender-flipped fan hacks that have been going viral. She rightly points out that people have been doing this for decades. The results are entirely hit or miss. A gender-swapped Donkey Kong just means flipping the genders in a way that has no cultural cache, while a gender-swapped Legend of Zelda actually starring Zelda mostly empowers the protagonist even if she's still fighting to free a Damsel'ed Link.
The games that have the strongest visual impact--like a Megaman hack--don't actually alter the story or challenge any accepted gaming rhetoric. In cases where the developer themselves allow for arbitrary flips of the Damsel or the hero (Spelunky is the example in the video and I have no desire to ever play it now), it points out how ridiculous the trope is rather than flip the script in a significant way.
The games that attempt to satirize the trope are mostly as harmful as the trope itself. Why? Satire is hard and Scream made it look easy. Meta references are not the same thing as satire yet it's the shorthand substitute for actual meaningful commentary. Naming the Damsel in Earthworm Jim Princess What's-Her-Name only to kill her in the end is more ridiculous than just giving the girl a name and letting her be claimed in the final moments.
Female protagonists can be a great thing for games in the hero rescue mode. Alexandria Roivas in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem searches out the secret behind her grandfather's murder in a mansion that literally traps the ability to reason within its confines.
Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider chooses to save her expedition team from their Damsel-ing because it allows her to prove her historical theories.
Eriko in Illbleed saves her Damsel'ed friends from the deadly horror theme park while trying to accomplish her own goal of conquering the park for the cash prize.
Sarkeesian herself suggests Beyond Good & Evil's Jade as a similar character when she has to rescue her Damsel'ed partner partway through the game.
Much more interesting is Sarkeesian's suggestion for how the gaming industry could take the Damsel in Distress trope and turn it into a far more positive phenomenon. Her game pitch at the end of the video is excellent.
Essentially, a princess---the rightful heir to the throne--is thrown in jail by political opponents. She has to break herself out so she can return to the kingdom, uncover the evil-doers, and reclaim the power she was guaranteed by birth. It would be like Yorda (Ico) finding her own way out of the cage and solving the puzzles for herself to regain her full powers and fight against the darkness.
Male characters have to fight their way out of traps and jail cells all the time; why not do the same with strong female characters?
I'm really excited to see Sarkeesian dig into the next trope in the series. The Damsel in Distress set builds really well to a strong conclusion. I can only hope that Sarkeesian really sets a clear thesis in the first entry for future trope subjects so that the direction is apparent from the start.
Thoughts? Share them below.