In all honesty I find Tropes vs. Women in Videogames to be an entirely depressing series of videos to watch, write, and generally think about. This is not, however, related to the videos themselves but instead the issues they highlight and the more vocal and malignant responses. Of course, not all of the retorts which try and counter Anita Sarkeesian’s arguments are spiteful, close-minded, half-baked personal attacks which are fed by an unfounded fear that Sarkeesian is some kind of crazed “feminazi” on a personal mission to ruin videogames and kill your dog – only most of them. I previously wrote about the responses to the first video in the series which you can read here and validate my existence as a human being.
Shameless self-promotion aside, I was half considering a re-tread of the matter here but two realisations stopped that idea dead: firstly, such an effort was entirely redundant on every conceivable level and secondly that much of the criticism for the second part of Tropes vs. Women in Videogames is exactly the same as it was for the first part. Essentially there are a lot of people who upset that the video didn’t address everything in the entire world ever and is therefore unfair for not mentioning Samus Aran and that one time Princes Peach saved Mario. Therefore I have decided to take up the banner of rationality which has been left by the roadside that is the internet and attempt to wade through all of the self-entitled Men’s Rights Activists and offer some more articulate and balanced criticism of the series thus far.
You may be about to suggest that attempting to cover three episodes at once is just foolhardy, but therein lies the source of my main criticism with the series. While well-presented and articulate, there is a certain lack of weight to Sarkeesian’s argument; that is not to say it is biased or poorly constructed, just somewhat insubstantial. For example, at the start of the first video, Sarkseesian offers up an origin and definition for a “Damsel in Distress” but then spends an inordinate amount of time illustrating how prolific such a trope is. I fully understand that in many ways the unyielding focus on the use of the trope itself is the point, but the problem here is that Sarkeesian is merely showing that it exists and doing little else.
This technique of constantly iterating how pervasive the trope is was used for the majority of the first two videos, and although she highlights some the more common twists on the trope, Sarkeesian is again just pointing at something that exists and saying, “Hey, look at this thing.” Each variation of the trope is noted and a flurry of examples thrown towards the viewer in order to cement the existence of the trope within our minds. While it is important to address such worrisome aspects within our beloved medium, merely pointing and saying they are bad is unproductive. Most of us are aware of how ubiquitous the lazy writing that leads to the “Woman in the Refrigerator” trope is, but what we require here is an attempt to explain why it’s such a noxious element within the industry. Sarkeesian doesn’t hit her stride until over half way through each video, and up until that point it really can’t be considered anything more than a history lesson.
Part one is particularly guilty of this. Of course, it is important for one to cite their sources so as to compound the argument within the viewer’s mind, but, even so, the sheer emphasis placed on such a task is overwhelming to the point of banality. This fault is largely overcome, however, thanks to the wider array of subject material addressed within the second video as she moves away from the vanilla incarnation of the “Damsel in Distress” trope towards the malformed variants of the “Woman in the Refrigerator”, the “Damsel in the Refrigerator”, the “Euthanized Damsel,” and, the old favourite, the dead wife, daughter rescue double act. When addressing these tropes Sarkeesian begins to make some genuinely interesting points as she constructs more of an argument around the trope while simultaneously deconstructing the trope itself. However, as with the first video, it is not until towards the end that we witness Sarkeesian’s rhetoric evolve into something more interesting.
One of the more disturbing observations was how writers, “build a narrative on the backs of brutalised women,” by making the death of a female character more meaningful than their life. This all weaves into the possession complex that is used in order to develop a motive for the protagonist. In most games which rely on one of the aforementioned tropes, the female character is often disposed of within the opening sequence and thus receives no characterisation which would make us want to care about her – the only reason the developers think we should care is because she belonged to the protagonist and was in some way stolen. The crystal skull in 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand gets more characterisation than most female characters before it is stolen in order to spark the arbitrary rampage.
This in turn leads onto another of the more interesting lines of Sarkeesian’s argument which is in relation to game mechanics.
“When violence is the primary gameplay mechanic, and therefore the primary way that the player engages with the game world… The player is then forced to use violence to deal with almost all situations, because it is the only meaningful mechanic available.”
This is so troublesome because of how often such limitations lead to violence against women within the game. You may of course raise your hand and ask about the several hundred guys the protagonist had to kill in order to arrive at the grand finale. While it is a valid query, it is also a rather different beast from that of the stylised, almost romanticised violence we often see against a female character. It is the reinforcing of the stereotype that we all know: women are to be protected and live in deference to men while the men go out and smash things with their rippling muscles and swords the size of cars.
Such storytelling techniques actually make both genders look rather bad, but the difference is that while the former is reinforcing an existing stereotype, the latter is playing into the idea of the male power fantasy. Furthermore, it encourages the perception that a woman’s only purpose is to exist for the man. This is achieved by providing shallow character development for the male protagonist. Women are continually portrayed as weak and pathetic in constant need of saving from themselves and everyone else around them. Whereas men are made to look ridiculous for buying into that – most of us just haven’t noticed that yet. Of course, as Sarkeesian noted, we do not have a, “monkey see monkey do attitude,” and so games which rely on these tropes are not actively encouraging misogyny. More importantly, however, time and time again videogames fail to challenge the idea of the patriarchy and in doing so, also fail to encourage the player to challenge their own preconceptions.
The third video is by far the strongest so far and is why I have the least to say about it. I won’t simply regurgitate her argument here but I will highlight some of the more interesting elements. It manages to avoid many of the major faults with the first two, focusing instead on a well-rounded deconstruction of the issues highlighted within the video itself. Sarkeesian’s look at the inverted “Dude in Distress” is really rather interesting as she adeptly explains why the role reversal is of little real significance. “The Damsel in Distress” is so damaging because it perpetuates a long standing gender tradition in story telling whereas the “Dude in Distress” is, at best, slightly subversive of the trope. It doesn’t encourage any pre-existing sentiments and, especially in the case of Super Princess Peach, is little more than a poor joke or a market novelty; a game designed simply to appeal to the young female demographic which erupted with the success of the Nintendo DS. It does little to think beyond the cliché and does not help counter the pernicious elements found alongside the application of the damsel trope in the first place.
With the indie development scene being so famous for its subversive nature and counter to the bloated and stagnating AAA market, Sarkeesian turns her attention to some of the more popular and successful games in order to see whether they go against the grain regarding gender stereotypes. In short, they don’t. The “Damsel in Distress” trope still rears its ugly head in numerous indie titles, and, although, I would consider it to be the less detrimental incarnation, Sarkeesian would disagree, suggesting that the parody of the trope seen in games such as Super Meat Boy and Castle Crashers is just a shallow Meta commentary used ironically or as homage. They do little to challenge the trope itself. In fact, it actually perpetuates it by lacing it with humour which makes it appear to be more acceptable.
In reflection, her argument is actually very convincing, highlighting how the application of the trope, even done so humorously, should be considered as sexist parody, rather than parody of sexism. The difference between these two concepts is a very interesting one and is illustrated well by Sarkeesian as she argues that the former encourages the player to mock or trivialise gender issues while the latter disrupts the status quo and various gender conventions. While some games are more adept at applying the latter, there are a great many more which are guilty of applying the former. This is largely attributable to the parody and homage paying nature of indie development in the current market. Humour is a stronger force within indie titles than it is in AAA but it must be remembered that humour is a powerful cultural tool, and recreating a damaging trope such as the Damsel in Distress one, even if done so jokingly, does not necessarily excuse its use in the first place.
Sexism is prevalent within our society, but most people view it as entirely innocuous and that such clearly defined gender roles are not only the norm, but should remain that way. I am told on a regular basis that I should meet a nice woman who can cook for me, or that I should help with various “manly” tasks – both of these are ridiculous generalisations. Very few people seem to recognize that, instead they believe that these are simply the way things should be. It is important to address the root of the matter rather than just a symptom, but gender bias within videogame narrative straddles an uneasy line of both symptom and cause. Videogames are a product of our culture and thus mirror it; therefore, in a society in which passive sexism is the norm, they regularly adopt the conventional stance and simply play along, thus perpetuating the cycle.
We must face the reality of the situation. The videogame industry is not some sort of sexist imp resting on our shoulder whispering misogynist poems into our ears while we sleep, but it simply doesn’t know any better. Sadly, this industry is not only lacking in genuine writing talent, it is still reeling from the hangover that was the nineties. It relies on the same outdated techniques as ever. It is almost as if the industry itself is unaware of its own potential as a narrative medium. The majority of the effort is placed firmly into the gameplay department, leaving the story alone in a darkened room where it is only allowed out in order to provide us with a flimsy pretext for the onscreen mayhem.
The issue of videogames being a male dominated sphere only encourages this. Of course there are more and more women gamers, but the industry itself is largely populated by men. While the disproportional male to female employment ratio is detrimental in and of itself, the really pernicious aspects come from marketing side. In recent months we have seen Naughty Dog fight to keep Ellie on the cover of The Last of Us, Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite demoted to the back of the box and Remember Me fight tooth and nail just to publish a game with a female protagonist. This is where the hangover from the nineties comes into its own twisted element; the outdated view that videogames are still exclusively for young males encourages the pervasiveness of the male power fantasy and the lure of subservient woman because the industry believes that it will appeal to that demographic. The industry has run ahead of itself. Its brain is stuck in an antiquated time warp while its potential runs rampant in the modern day.
In part one Sarkeesian is sure to clarify that use of these tropes does not automatically condemn a game by ripping it of all meaning or value. It is important to mention this because, as a plot device, the damsel in distress is not without its merits, but the sheer ubiquity is what makes it so damaging. This is furthered by how the damsel in distress becomes more than just a “synonym for ‘weak,’ instead it works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones. No matter what we are told about their magical abilities, skills or strengths they still ultimately captured or otherwise incapacitated and then must wait for rescue.” This again plays a role in the trade-off between female disempowerment in favour of male empowerment and a continuation of the archaic, yet established societal norms.
Sarkeesian is often too busy illustrating a concept or simply criticising the use of a trope to address these wider issues in any real depth, and subsequently leaves her argument somewhat lacking any real drive. Of course, as I have mentioned, it is important to highlight and equally vital to criticise but such methodology provides but the barebones of a polemic. However, I will finish by saying, as I have said before, that Tropes vs. Women in Videogames is one of the most valuable contributions to academic debate surrounding sexism within videogames, the industry, and the culture which surrounds it. While videogames have been in our homes and hearts for decades now, it’s only in last ten or so years that they have been worth taking seriously enough for the problems to actually become so harmful. To point and say, “Hey, look at the terrible sexism,” is insurmountably better than simply ignoring it. We have to start somewhere and Sarkeesian is, in that respect, doing a rather good job.