So, now, let’s talk about the second part of Sarkeesian’s analysis of the Damsel in Distress Trope. She starts off with this description of the use of the trope:
And since the majority of these titles focus of delivering crude, unsophisticated male power fantasies, developers are largely unwilling to give up the Damsel in Distress model as an easy default motivation for their brooding male heroes or anti-heroes. Remember that as a trope the Damsel in Distress is a plot device used by writers, and not necessarily always just a one-dimensional character type entirely defined by victimhood.
These token gestures of pseudo-empowerment don’t really offer any meaningful change to the core of the trope and it feels like developers just throw these moments in at the last minute to try to excuse their continued reliance on the damsel in distress.
This indicates clearly that Sarkeesian does not understand the usefulness of the trope as outlined in my preamble post. The “Loved One At Risk” trope allows for a number of plots and situations, from the minor “Let’s give them a simple reason to complete the game” to the “Sadistic Choice!” to myriad other interactions. The trope is ideally suited for doing that, which is why it became a trope in the first place. That it appears in what Sarkeesian calls “crude, unsophisticated male power fantasies” does not mean that that’s its primary use, or that it itself is a crude and unsophisticated trope, and that it is relied on perhaps too much does not mean that we actually have other tropes that can fill the spot it occupies. Sarkeesian, I think, criticizes the trope itself too much as opposed to criticizing either its overuse or how it’s used, as evidenced by what she says here:
As we discussed in our first episode, when female characters are damsel’ed, their ostensible agency is removed and they are reduced to a state of victimhood.
But, are they “reduced to a state of victimhood” merely by being captured? If a game features the MC being captured, does that reduced them to a state of victimhood, if they don’t escape themselves? In “Shadow Hearts: Covenant”, the whole entire team — including the very macho MC hero Yuri — are captured and have to be rescued by the
dog wolf. Does that reduce Yuri to a victim? Heck, the plot of that game is centered around having to have Yuri from the curse he’s adopted, that will eventually kill him, with restoring his love Alice as a sidequest that fails. Is Yuri nothing more than a victim?
Being captured and put in distress, and needing to be rescued, is not, in and of itself, any kind of reduction to victim. In fact, it’s been a staple of Saturday Morning Cartoons to have the toughest and most individualistic character — usually, but not exclusively, a big, tough, macho male — get captured and have to rely on the rest of the team to save them, proving that even the toughest characters sometimes need help from the teammates and can’t do everything themselves. So we don’t want to eliminate the idea that characters — even female characters — sometimes need help. From a feminist perspective, Sarkeesian can argue that because women have traditionally been portrayed as only victims, using this for female characters puts them back into that state of victimhood just when they’ve broken free of it. But the solution is not to ensure that women are not put into that role, or eliminate the trope, but instead of expand instead of contract. Expand the roles for female characters so that there are female characters in the game who are competent and contribute and who don’t get put in distress, and expand the distress role to include male characters in it more often. Now, there may be issues with the latter, but I’ll talk about them in the next part when we talk about “Dudes in Distress”.
The issue is that Sarkeesian talks about the trope, but because she doesn’t seem to understand what it actually provides she doesn’t really have a way to replace it, and jumps too quickly to condemning the trope itself, as is evidenced by her approach where she simply puts out examples of the trope and says “This is what I’m talking about”. While there is some threads in her discussions about its overuse, at the end of the day simply doing it seems to be enough to earn her condemnation. She doesn’t talk about good uses of the trope, or ones that don’t have the problems, and I think she can’t because her whole objection, at its most charitable, is about the frequency of it … but comments like the above aren’t ones that speak to frequency.
So narratives that frame intimacy, love or romance as something that blossoms from or hinges upon the disempowerment and victimization of women are extremely troubling because they tend to reinforce the widespread regressive notion that women in vulnerable, passive or subordinate positions are somehow desirable because of their state of powerlessness. Unfortunately these types of stories also help to perpetuate the paternalistic belief that power imbalances within romantic relationships appealing, expected, or normal.
Except … if we look back at the first part, there’s nothing there that suggests that the desirability of the female character is because of their helplessness. Recall her comments on Krystal, and the romantic sax music? What did the character say when he saw her? “She’s beautiful!” The whole thrust is that she was incredibly attractive, and that, in and of itself, was enough for the hero to fall in love with her. That’s all she had to do to gain his love. Now, flip that around. What does the hero have to do to earn her love? Risk his life and limb on a long adventure where he proves that he’s strong and powerful and competent. The attraction of a damsel is not that she’s helpless or subordinate, but that she needs him, which gives him a chance to prove to her how strong and competent she is. In short, a beautiful damsel is one that he has a chance to prove himself to, and proving himself to a woman is how he will “win” her. In contrast, the damsel only has to be attractive; none of her other traits matter or, often, are even explored.
This is one of the cases where the patriarchy really does cut both ways. On the one hand, the damseled character can be presented as nothing more than, well, eye candy or a pretty face. The hero, however, is presented as being strong and capable. On the other hand, the hero is presented as having to prove himself to win her love by demonstrating that strength and competence, while the damsel needs to prove nothing to him. He has to convince her that he’s worthy of her love, through demonstrations of strength, daring and risking his life to save her. She need demonstrate nothing of the sort to him, and doesn’t need to “win” him in any way.
The ideal is to base relationships on developed and compatible personality traits, and this is what is happening in modern video games that, well, actually delve into such things. The Personas and the Bioware games are built around forming relationships around finding the personality traits that their character would find most compatible with them, and this works well. In simpler games with simpler stories, it’s still the case that more of the love interests are semi-equals, and not just a pretty face. So even putting aside the onesidedness of her feminist analysis, her analysis is also a bit out of date.
So let’s move on to “Women in Refrigerators”:
In each case the protagonists’ wife and daughter are brutally murdered and their deaths are then used by the developers as a pretext for their inevitable bloody revenge quest. It’s interesting to note that the reversed scenario, games hinging on a woman vowing revenge for her murdered boyfriend or husband are practically nonexistent. The gender role reversal is so unusual that it borders on the absurd, which is one of the reason’s why this scene from Disney’s Wreck it Ralph is so humorous.
Well, the issue here is that this “Kill someone close and have them set out on a mission of revenge” trope was most commonly done with … mentors and fathers. For example, Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride”: “You killed my father, prepare to die”. It’s so much of a trope that Elan and Julio Scoundrel — two characters steeped in tropes and the awareness of them — comment directly on it. While avenging the death of your loved one is indeed a fairly common trope, as far as I can tell the “Rescue loved one” trope is more common and the “Avenge mentor” trope is more common because of the idea that if the story is going to have a happy ending the hero has to be reunited with their true love. If you present the damsel in distress as not being their true love, it reduces the motivation for the rescue, and if you kill off the true love, you won’t have a happy ending, even if you set them up with someone else. It’s only in darker and grittier works where you are going for at best a bittersweet if not an out and out tragic ending that you can start with killing the true love and sending them out on a mission for revenge or to rescue their child.
So men being killed to serve the plot interests of male characters has been massively common throughout most media. Women being killed for the plot of male characters isn’t as common, although it is still common. And part of the reason for doing it is precisely that women being killed is supposed to bother and concern us no matter who they are, while men dying isn’t really a cause for that sort of concern unless they mean something to us. This carries over to killing female character in games, even if they’re enemy combatants; for a long time, male characters simply couldn’t kill or fight female characters no matter how evil they were.
(Note to anyone who notes that none of my examples are from video games: I just don’t play games that use this specific trope, as far as I can recall. The closest I can think of is Fatal Frame, except that Mafuyu goes there to rescue his mentor, Miku goes there to rescue him, and the only one with a revenge storyline is Kirae, the villain. Thus, since I do play a fair number of games but play inside a specific genre, perhaps, again, she is focusing far too much on one genre of games).
Believe it or not there is another more insidious version of this particular trope-hybrid, which I call the Damsel in the Refrigerator. Now you may be asking yourself how can a fridged woman still be in distress? Since by definition being fridged usually sort of requires… being dead. Well here’s how it works — The Damsel in the Refrigerator occurs when the hero’s sweetheart is brutally murdered and her soul is then trapped or abducted by the villain. This ‘oh so dark and edgy twist’ provides players with a double dose of female disempowerment and allows developers to again exploit both the revenge motivation and the saving the damsel motivation but this time with the same woman at the same time.
If you want an example of how Sarkeesian’s arguments tend to focus on the trope itself being bad, this is a prime example. The idea of trapping someone’s soul is a wonderful horror device, as almost everyone thinks that that would be absolute torment. Doing it to one’s loved one, then, ought to instill a strong emotional motivation to rescue them from that state. So we end up with a strong motivation to rescue them, and that motivation drives us forward through all the combat sequences, and allows for happy and bittersweet endings when we get there. So, as a plot device, it’s a wonderful one that allows for a ton of possibilities.
So, then, why is it “insidious”? Because it happens to be happening to women? If the majority of protagonists are male, and we tie it to a character that they should have a strong emotional connection to — like their loved one — then much of the time it will happen to female characters. This isn’t, in and of itself, bad, and as we get more female protagonists things will balance more. With more balance in female roles, this wouldn’t be bad in any way, let alone insidious. The “Soul Trap” trope isn’t a bad trope … even when it’s used on female characters.
Since what we are really talking about here are depictions of violence against women it might be useful to quickly define what I mean by that term. When I say Violence Against Women I’m primarily referring to images of women being victimized or when violence is specifically linked to a character’s gender or sexuality. Female characters who happen to be involved in violent or combat situations on relatively equal footing with their opponents are typically be exempt them from this category because they are usually not framed as victims.
So … if a woman is in any way made a victim, then that’s … bad? So, no examples of women being victimized. Fine. But then you have to either have no characters being victimized ever — which reduces the motivation to oppose the evil characters because, well, in general part of being evil is victimizing people — or else only men can be victimized. Huh. Somehow, I think she hasn’t thought this through. And while she might have a point about violence linked to the gender or sexuality — although, of course, if done by the evil characters that in theory ought to be okay — nothing in this trope does that; it can apply equally to all genders, but just happens to apply more to female characters for the reasons I’ve already given.
But the most extreme and gruesome variant of this trend is when developers combine the damsel in distress with the mercy killing. This usually happens when the player character must murder the woman in peril “for her own good”. I like to call this happy little gem the “Euthanized Damsel”. Typically the damsel has been mutilated or deformed in some way by the villain and the “only option left” to the hero is to put her “out of her misery” himself.
These damsel’ed women are written so as to subordinate themselves to men. They submissively accept their grisly fate and will often beg the player to perform violence on them – giving men direct and total control over whether they live or die. Even saying “thank you” with their dying breath. In other words these women are “asking for it” quite literally.
This is the first example where, as Roy Greenhilt from the Order of the Stick once put it, Sarkeesian’s argument goes astray because she can’t grasp the grammar. The trope she’s talking about here, in general, relates most to female characters who have been possessed by some entity so that the MC must attack and possibly kill the female character to contain the entity, or they are powering some kind of device to end the world, or something like that. In short, it’s the Sadistic Choice: kill your love or let the world die. This is a wonderful emotional trope and something that can really impact the players, especially since they have to do it themselves. But what makes this trope strong is not that they are “asking for it” in a way that implies that they deserve it — which is what the “asking for it” line with domestic violence is trying to claim — but instead, the exact opposite. This trope runs and has its emotional impact because the victim absolutely and completely does not deserve to be fought or killed, but you have to do it anyway. Their “asking for it” is, in fact, a statement of character, a statement that they are willing to give up their lives and suffer to save the world. A character that had gotten into this mess themselves, by their own choice, would be less sympathetic, often so much so that killing them gives no emotional qualms at all. It’s only when none of this is their fault that the trope works, which again is the exact opposite of the domestic violence related “asking for it”. Tragic and bittersweet stories will have them die; happy stories will allow them to be saved in some way.
Also note that the example of this that I most remember in video games is from Shadow Hearts, where you have to do it to … Yuri, the male protagonist, as he has been taken over by his fusion form. Would Sarkeesian find that, then, a problematic use of the trope? Sure, he doesn’t die, but she uses just fighting them as examples as well, and somehow I don’t think she’d see this case as being the same despite, well, it being the same thing except for, perhaps, the cultural context.
Of course, if you look at any of these games in isolation, you will be able to find incidental narrative circumstances that can be used to explain away the inclusion of violence against women as a plot device. But just because a particular event might “makes sense” within the internal logic of a fictional narrative – that doesn’t, in and of itself justify its use. Games don’t exist in a vacuum and therefore can’t be divorced from the larger cultural context of the real world.
It’s especially troubling in-light of the serious real life epidemic of violence against women facing the female population on this planet. Every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in the United States and on average more than three women are murdered by their boyfriends husbands, or ex-partners every single day. Research consistently shows that people of all genders tend to buy into the myth that women are the ones to blame for the violence men perpetrate against them. In the same vein, abusive men consistently state that their female targets “deserved it”, “wanted it” or were “asking for it”,
Given the reality of that larger cultural context, it should go without saying that it’s dangerously irresponsible to be creating games in which players are encouraged and even required to perform violence against women in order to “save them”.
Sure, because most game players are complete and utter morons who won’t get the actual differences in the contexts in the story that justify it in the game case and make it unjustifiable in real life.
The weakness in Sarkeesian’s cultural analysis is exactly that she doesn’t understand the tropes and the emotional responses that they are engendering, and so only links it shallowly to issues that she, as a feminist, is deeply concerned about, without showing any kind of link between these two very different things. As such, she either ends up attacking the trope itself or trying to exclude women from them based on the cultural context without grasping the meat of the trope, insisting that it exploits women when it really doesn’t do that at all. So far, her lack of understanding of tropes has been clear, and I do not think it will get better as things go along.