Tropes vs Women: Damsel in Distress Part 1

So, in honour of Sarkeesian adding a new video — the first “Tropes vs Women” video this year — let’s start at the beginning and look at the first part of her examination of the “Damsel in Distress” trope.

Before we get into this, let me remind you of what I talked about last as a set-up for this on what the “Damsel in Distress” trope is supposed to do: it’s supposed to give the player a reason to play through the game. Thus, it has to provide something that the player cares about in order to push them to complete the game. Thus, any damsel has to be something that both the player and the character care about in order to provide that kind of motivation.

One way to think about Damsel’d characters is via what’s called the subject/object dichotomy. In the simplest terms, subjects act and objects are acted upon. The subject is the protagonist, one the story is centered on and the one doing most of the action. In video games this is almost always the main playable character and the one from whose perspective most of the story is seen.

So the damsel trope typically makes men the “subject” of the narratives while relegating women to the “object”. This is a form of objectification because as objects, damsel’ed women are being acted upon, most often becoming or reduced to a prize to be won, a treasure to be found or a goal to be achieved.

The problem is that I think this is just the first place where she equivocates on the meanings of words in order to make her point. Sure, it’s the case that in literature you have a subject (the protagonist) and objects, which is pretty much everything else in the story. It’s obviously true that the plot will centre on the protagonist (or protagonists) and the everything else in the plot will be there only to further their plot and their goals, but this doesn’t reduce them to “objects”, in the sense that they’re considered to be the equivalent of, say, your equipped sword. They can indeed remain characters, and in fact the Damsel in Distress trope requires that. Simple games rely on us automatically considering them such in order to gain the motivation for us to try to save them, while more complicated games build them up as characters in order to, again, give us the motivation to go out and rescue them.

Let’s use Persona 4 as an example. In the game, the relationship with Nanako is one that is encouraged and established throughout the game. They insert her into various scenarios to encourage you to relate to and become attached to her throughout the game, including through her Social Link. At one point, she herself is abducted into the TV World, which drives you to try to rescue her. But unlike the others, as she is so young the effects of that world are worse for her, and she becomes hospitalized. At that point, the music becomes more somber, and I’ve definitely heard one fan of the series note just how empty coming home felt without her “Welcome home, Big Bro!” to welcome you. As the game progresses, Nanako, in fact, dies. This prompts the key encounter that can lead to one of the bad endings, as the protagonist and the members of the Investigation Team debate simply killing the abductor in revenge, which the protagonist must avoid doing despite desperately wanting to, as portrayed in the anime. The story builds her up as a character so that her abduction has meaning, and her death can drive the plot forward. So, in a sense, all of this really is to further the story arc of the protagonist, but that doesn’t mean that Nanako is just an object. She is and remains a strong character, and none of her qualities are removed in order to provide that. Which means that this:

Distilled down to its essence, the plot device works by trading the disempowerment of female characters FOR the empowerment of male characters.

Is flat-out wrong. The plot device works by building up a character such that the protagonist — whether male or female — wants to rescue them. If it applies more often to female than male characters, it’s likely for two reasons. The first is that a woman needing to be rescued is not likely to cause the audience to lose sympathy for her, which is not the case for male characters. The second is that in the shallower games all that a woman needs to do or bring to the table is to be attractive, and then she immediately becomes worthy of being saved and, in fact, having the male protagonist be willing to sacrifice their life to do that. This is, of course, not true of a game like Persona 4 where the character is developed to be one that you want to rescue, but in general it is quite easy to get away with a female Damsel in Distress having nothing more going for her than being beautiful and a woman, and it being expected that, again, the player and the character will be willing to go to extreme lengths to save her. This is the flip side of the sexist trope; men are expected to risk their lives to save women even if they have no other reason to do so than that the woman is attractive. They need bring nothing else to the table, while men need to be heroic and capable to get their happy ending.

So, from this, we can see:

The pattern of presenting women as fundamentally weak, ineffective or entirely incapable also has larger ramifications beyond the characters themselves and the specific games they inhabit. We have to remember that these games do not exist in a vacuum, they are an increasingly important and influential part of our larger social and cultural ecosystem.

That this, at best, outdated. Sarkeesian says this:

So the woman in question may or may not play the victim role for the entire game or series while our brave hero may or may not even be successful in his rescue attempt. All that is really required to fulfill the damsel in distress trope is for a female character to be reduced to a state of helplessness from which she requires rescuing by a typically male hero for the benefit of his story arc.

So, we can have a strong, capable heroine who is temporarily made a captive (sometimes in unbelievable ways). This, then, means that the trope doesn’t have to present women as being fundamentally weak, ineffective or incapable. For example, the entire plot of “I, Jedi” is about Corran Horn having to rescue Mirax Terrik, but that in no way presents her as being fundamentally weak or ineffective or incapable; in fact, other than his having Jedi powers Mirax is often presented as being far more capable than he is. But she’s incapacitated in a relatively credible way as a spur to drive him on. So, then, we can ask why it is that Mirax is captured. Well, we can return to what the trope aims for — she’s his wife and the most important person in his life. But, also, we can see that her being captured here doesn’t impact her character. Female characters can be captured and seem vulnerable without it spoiling their characters, much of the time. That isn’t true for most male characters, which is something that we should indeed fix. But the key point her is that the Damsel in Distress trope relies on it being the case that women can be vulnerable without it undermining their characters in a way that men can’t. So it isn’t that women are seem as necessarily weak or vulnerable, but that women can been seen as weak or vulnerable while still being sympathetic characters that we should all want to save.

At its heart the damsel trope is not really about women at all, she simply becomes the central object of a competition between men (at least in the traditional incarnations). I’ve heard it said that “In the game of patriarchy women are not the opposing team, they are the ball.” So for example, we can think of the Super Mario franchise as a grand game being played between Mario and Bowser. And Princess Peach’s role is essentially that of the ball.

The two men are tossing her back and forth over the course of the main series, each trying to keep and take possession of the damsel-ball.

The problem is that this representation is actually massively rare in the Damsel in Distress trope. As even Sarkeesian pointed out right above that, the woman’s love is seen as a prize or reward, as something that has inherent value, while the ball only has value as a way to score points off of the other person. There are a number of plots that rely on the woman simply being another way to prove that one of the people is better than the other, but typically these end with the hero winning out because he sees her as more than that. For example, in “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”, the Sheriff of Rottingham forces Marian to marry him in order to save Robin’s life. She agrees, but says that he can only have her body, but he could never have her mind or her soul … to which he replies that he’s totally okay with that. The joke works because, typically, we expect that to be something that would bother the villain, that he couldn’t possess her entirely and so, somehow, still loses to the hero, while in this case he doesn’t care about that at all. Following on from this, the reason we want the hero to win in these cases is that he doesn’t merely want to possess her, but instead wants to win her, where winning her means that she accepts him and comes to love him, and love him for the qualities that he possesses and demonstrates. In short, the hero wants to earn her love, while the villain wants to force it. In essence, the villain is bad because he treats her as an object, while the hero is good because he doesn’t. And who wins is determined by the decision of the damsel, and her feelings; a damsel that felt that the hero didn’t really love her wouldn’t, in fact, give him her heart and soul either. No one cares to have the ball unless it gets them further to their other goals, and no one asks the trophy who they think ought to win the game.

So, that’s pretty much all I want to say about the first part.

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