Tropes vs Women: Damsel in Distress Part 2

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.


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8 Responses to “Tropes vs Women: Damsel in Distress Part 2”

  1. Andrew Says:

    (1) Men and women are different, in a way that is at least marginally generalisable.

    Given that Sarkeesian seems willing to generalise about men, I think she’d be forced to grant this in some form. However, from that, a number of other considerations follow.

    (2) Men and women – generalised – think about stories and relate to protagonists in different ways.

    (3) Many, many games are written by men, for men.

    (4) Therefore, the protagonist is often written so that men will identify with them.

    That’s the intro. Now let’s apply it to the “damsel in distress”.

    (5) A man is often motivated by and find virtue in protecting that which is valuable to and loved by him. Especially his women and children. Often, this expands to women and children in general.

    (6) Therefore, a plot involving rescuing women or children who are threatened by the antagonist creates multiple points of identification between the protagonist and the player.

    (7) Hence “damsel in distress”.

    Sarkeesian is (possibly wilfully) barking up completely the wrong tree. The plot isn’t “violence against women”; it’s affirming the hero’s role in preventing or undoing said violence. Of course, for such a plot to be meaningful, there has to be at least the perceived threat of genuine violence.

    Her real beef is “why don’t women get to be the protagonist in games made for men?”; the “violence against women” complaint is a tacky attempt at guilt by association. As for the real complaint, the number of men who fantasise about being a woman, even a kick-ass woman, is really, really, small, while most men are happy to fantasise about being a “powerful” man. Thus games for men which encourage direct projection tend to have a male protagonist. Games which have a different relationship between the player and the protagonist/s display more variety.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I do think that her main problem is that there aren’t enough female protagonists, even though she denies that. I personally think that she’s trying to force that analysis through a strong feminist analysis, and ends up making statements that, when analyzed, make no sense. That being said, I think that your 3) is where the dispute is. I disagree that men making games means anything about who they will appeal to, and so then would question why, say, most games are made for men instead of appealing to a more general audience. Even if men and women think about stories differently, it’s not likely to be that much that you couldn’t make a story or game that appeals to both, and we’ve been doing that in all sorts of media for a long, long time now. So if most games are being made for men, that is something that gaming might want to think about doing differently, if they can make games that will appeal to both and make money.

      I’m not saying that you can’t make games only for men or only for women, but if all games are aimed at one gender or another then that does seem to be a waste, and a bit short-sighted.

  2. Andrew Says:

    At the risk of going off topic:

    To me, a far more interesting topic for exploration would be male vs female use of female avatars in MMOs (and also male vs female use of male avatars). To what extent does each sex “identify” with such an avatar, as opposed to “observing” them. How does this compare to single-player games that allow choosing differently sexed avatars? Are people more likely to choose an avatar that approximates an idealised version of themselves in games where the plot contains more in-depth personal social interaction (romance sub-plots, etc)?

    For example, my “first” character in an MMO is usually the one I identify most closely with. It’s invariably male, usually of a race, class and play-style that tracks my own inclinations, and roughly modelled on my own appearance. Additional characters tend to be created “third person”, in that they nominally have an identity and back-story that is not “mine”. They tend to be female, unless I think a male character fits the idea better. I often imagine how my “main” (a proxy for “me”) would relate to them.

    This feels odd when chatting with other players when playing an alt, in that I am representing myself with a character that is not strictly “me”.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      The success of JRPGs, which very often have extremely set characters to play, suggests that people can definitely handle simply mostly observing and guiding rather than having to relate to the main character as being an avatar of themselves. And we know from role playing games in general that a lot of the people who’d like RPG games DEFINITELY can handle taking on a role or a character who isn’t them and is nothing like themselves. So I think the focus on women being able to “relate” to the main character is probably a bit overstated as an issue. and is also generally self-defeating because the OTHER argument given is that men SHOULDN’T have a problem playing/relating to a female main character. To me, that suggests that what we need is more characterization and customization, not, as Sarkeesian wants to push, more female-only protagonist games.

      As for me, I tend to play as characters in MMOs, who are not myself, which is one of the reasons why I loved City of Heroes because that was INCREDIBLY easy to do there. In The Old Republic, my characters are: Corran Horn, generic female Agent, generic male honourable Sith Warrior, Garibald, Galen, and Sinclair from Babylon 5, and Jag Fell from the Star Wars EU. My last character is likely to be a Trooper based on The Sisko.

  3. Andrew Says:

    It feels to me like you’re getting too caught up in your own experience and examples and thereby responding too narrowly. So let me re-ask the core questions in the abstract:

    – Is the distinction between “vicarious” (protagonist-as-me) vs “third party” protagonist/s meaningful, at least for a meaningful proportion of people who play?

    Consider your list of CoH characters. Are they all “you”, or are they personalities through whom you experience the story? Do you recognise the distinction? Do you recognise how others might make that distinction? How common is this amongst gamers?

    – Do players have “identification” filters that break immersion in vicarious play?

    – How does this affect game design?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      – Is the distinction between “vicarious” (protagonist-as-me) vs “third party” protagonist/s meaningful, at least for a meaningful proportion of people who play?

      I think that there is a difference between the experiences that can have an impact. I also think that for a small number of people the difference in experience might be critical to their enjoyment of a game, meaning that they won’t play a game unless they can get the sort of experience they like. However, history has shown that the difference between these sorts of experiences is not enough to alienate a significant proportion of the audience for games, or any other media, as we have popular and successful genres that aim for vicarious experiences and genres that aim at third party experiences. In short, you can make games that aim at either or both and they work well.

      Consider your list of CoH characters. Are they all “you”, or are they personalities through whom you experience the story? Do you recognise the distinction? Do you recognise how others might make that distinction? How common is this amongst gamers?

      The examples I listed in the comment — of The Old Republic — are all the latter. All of my CoH characters were the latter as well. But the best example, for me, might be Dragon Age/Mass Effect. In Mass Effect, it was a character based on Helena Cain from the revamped BSG. In Dragon Age, they were both created characters not based either on myself or any other known character; I give them a basic personality and nothing else. In the Persona games, I tend to play the character as an extension of myself more. All of those produce different yet still valuable experiences, and I think that games can indeed produce all of these experiences and succeed, as long as they make that clear from the beginning.

      – Do players have “identification” filters that break immersion in vicarious play?

      I think that immersion is broken, in this sense, when the game pushes players to play against their character. So in a game where they are associating the main character with themselves, something that makes them not see that character as themselves would do it. But the same thing would apply if they were playing with a created character that isn’t themselves — say, as Corran Horn as per my TOR character — OR if they are playing as a defined character like Yuri Hyuga from Shadow Hearts. To this level, it’s what the character they’re playing as that’s the issue, not whether that character is really themselves or not.

      – How does this affect game design?

      Knowing what you’re trying to achieve is important, and making sure that there aren’t too many immersion-breaking issues is important. Really, though, the distinction is between “Character the player defines” and “Character the game defines that you then play”. If you’re going for the former, you need more customization and player choice, and for the latter you need strong characterization. Beyond that, I don’t see much of an impact.

      • Andrew Says:

        Ah, so we’re basically on the same page. Good 🙂 I think our main point of disagreement is how significant a factor this is in the wider gaming community.

        I think there’s a significant portion who enjoy the “old tropes” for their “bread and butter” gaming, and if they are continually forced to deal with subversion of their tropes / conflicts with their self-image then they will become annoyed. Which is why I think that games made for men tend to – all other things being equal – default to a male protagonist if they want to encourage identification rather than empathy (wrong word?). Sarkeesian seems to be perpetually annoyed that people make games for not-her and that the games made for not-her don’t push her preferred identifications.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        I think there’s a significant portion who enjoy the “old tropes” for their “bread and butter” gaming, and if they are continually forced to deal with subversion of their tropes / conflicts with their self-image then they will become annoyed. Which is why I think that games made for men tend to – all other things being equal – default to a male protagonist if they want to encourage identification rather than empathy (wrong word?).

        Well, I rather think that most companies default to that because that’s what it’s always been, and big companies tend to be both lazy and risk-averse, and so don’t change anything that’s been working. I think that many people complain about changing that less because it violates their own identity, but more because it’s seen as something done to be more inclusive as opposed to making games better, and gamers tend to react badly to that. The number of people who need that identification to enjoy the game is in my opinion low enough to not scuttle games — as we’ve seen — and might be balanced by, say, female gamers who feel the same way then adopting the game. Ultimately, most gamers will play it as long as it is good, no matter what gender or race the protagonist is.

        Sarkeesian seems to be perpetually annoyed that people make games for not-her and that the games made for not-her don’t push her preferred identifications.

        I think Sarkeesian is more interested in Social Justice than she is in gaming. The most charitable interpretation is that she wants games to be the Social Justice paradise so that she can escape from this world — see her latest review, for example — but more likely she wants games and media in general to fix the problems in our society, which games can’t do in and of themselves. Ultimately, she DOES want games to reflect her Social Justice ideals, which is problematic because a) games have to sell/appeal to the society we have, not the one she wants us to have and b) not everyone agrees with those ideals.

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