Tropes vs Women: Damsel in Distress Part 3

So, now, let’s look at the third and final part of Sarkeesian’s initial video series on the Damsel in Distress trope. In this one, she start out looking for “Dude in Distress”, where a female protagonist must save their male love interest, and notes that it’s pretty rare:

But what about the reverse? Are there games starring heroic women who must go on a quest to save a dude in distress? Well yes, they do exist. However since female protagonists starring in their own games are already few and far between, adventures in which women work to save men in peril are extremely rare.

So, given this, my argument that if we had more female protagonists this would get better — which she denies — looks pretty good, doesn’t it?

Now, before getting into the content of her video, let me outline one reason that I think Sarkeesian and in fact most feminists kinda miss for why you see and will see fewer Dudes in Distress than Damsels in Distress, and why this isn’t something that game designers can fix. We can essentially break down the motivations for people making a game into two major ones:

1) They want to make an entertainment product as a product, and want to make money on it.

2) They want to make an entertainment product as a work of art, and thus to provide a specific experience for the player.

Now, of course, you can get all sorts of mixing and matching and often on any given game project you’ll have some people who are 2) and some people who are 1), but in general this is what you’re after: you’re either there to make money, to produce a certain type of experience, or both. And what’s key in this is how it relates to the intended audience: they are the key. If you produce a game that they won’t like, don’t get, and don’t want to play, they won’t buy it and you won’t make money. If you produce a game that the audience won’t get, then you won’t produce the experience you want in them. So the assumptions and ideas and thought processes of the audience are very important, even if you want to subvert them.

How this relates to the Dude in Distress trope is simple: a female character that is made vulnerable is easier to make a sympathetic character than a male character is.

As I’ve noted earlier, the heart of the Damsel in Distress trope is that you are supposed to care about the person who is kidnapped and want to save them. This is vitally important in video games because the designers need to find something to make you slog through the gameplay in games that are more than just “Go out there and get the highest score, young man!”. Again, in movies and the like you can enjoy watching the hero who cares even if you don’t, but in a game, as Shamus Young comments in a text play of Silent Hill: Origins, the player has to be interested as well:

Now, I have no doubt that he’s right – I’m sure “someone” really is sending him all these places. But the game just isn’t selling it to me. Sure, Travis is curious, but he never says anything to make me curious, and since I’m doing the driving I really need to be on board with where we’re going.

So if I have no interest in saving the kidnapped person, then the game is going to fall flat for me. When the Damsel becomes the load, it can be really frustrating. Shamus talked about that with respect to a character in the Tomb Raider reboot:

Once again: Note how Sam is sitting out of the way, doing nothing. Like a child. Everyone is straining, helping, and taking risks. When Jonah and Lara try to lift the engine, Sam doesn’t even bother to help. As before, this is realistic – I wouldn’t expect a young college kid like Sam to have much skill that would make her useful in this context – but from a story perspective it completely undercuts her as someone we can care about.

She’s constantly doing the wrong thing. She gets captured repeatedly. She’s not even vital to the mission. She doesn’t say anything smart. She doesn’t make funny jokes. She doesn’t have useful skills. She’s not brave, resourceful, hard working, or observant. Even the typical Indiana Jones sidekick occasionally gets a moment of triumph where they save the day or help Dr. Jones. But Sam is content to relax around the boat while everyone else is getting dirty, working hard, and risking their lives for the good of the group.

After the cutscene there’s a bit where Sam bumbles around and sets off the mounted gun, endangering Jonah and Rayes. (We missed it because we were in the building reading Jonah’s log.) She’s not even a screwup in an admirable way. She’s not the kind of character we can admire because they try hard but always mess up, because she doesn’t try hard and she’s not eager to please. And this scene isn’t even her worst moment. It’s unbelievable to me that this is the character the writers expect us to save. Three times. Sam is a butt.

(Yeah, that’s pretty much the whole post, but not the video).

So, what does this have to do with Dudes in Distress? Well, if we look at how the world was under patriarchy, it was generally expected that women wouldn’t be doing the violence stuff and so wouldn’t be the strong, rescuing character, and their traits were such that they’d be the vulnerable character. So the Damsel in Distress trope played on that, putting the woman in her socially acceptable vulnerable role and the man in the socially acceptable rescuer role. At that time, if you had put the male character into the “vulnerable” role, it would have caused some dissonance in the audience, and would have done it in a specific way: the audience would have felt that, like Sam, the Dude should have been doing more to save themselves, while the Damsel wouldn’t be expected to do anything to save herself. Sam, despite being a female character, fails this because she’s just way too incompetent and trouble-prone.

Now, things have changed. Female characters can fit into the rescuer category, but in general they can also be made vulnerable without becoming unsympathetic, as long as they are not pathetically and inexplicably vulnerable. A female character can chip in only at the end or even not at all and generally not have the players wonder why she isn’t actually doing anything to save herself. This isn’t true for men. Male characters have to share the “rescuer” or “strong” limelight, but haven’t really had the “have to be competent and self-sufficient” line weakened for them. Thus, if you make a male character the Dude in Distress, unless you work really hard at it you risk the audience finding the character unsympathetic and, for any romantic plot — undesirable as a romantic interest for both male and female players. If this personal plot is the one that drives the game, you risk people not liking it, not buying it, and not experiencing/enjoying the plot that you were using this for.

So, by focusing on changing the perception of female characters and not really looking at the perception of male characters, feminism shot itself in the foot as it attempted to move towards equality.

Now, the Dude in Distress can be done well. I think Fatal Frame does it remarkably well, as it sidesteps all of the issues with the Dude in Distress. But it is harder to do. For games that are relying on the trope as a lazy way to get player buy in — and lazy doesn’t have to mean bad — that’s far more work than they want to do … and that’s quite reasonable. Even for deeper games, if they don’t want the game to focus on this whole “Damsel” thing, then again taking the chance or putting the work into something that they don’t want to focus on but that if they use the “Damsel” trope it will help them present the story or experience they want is not a good option. Thus, from the perspective of people making games, there’s no real reason for them to deliberately try to subvert it unless they want this game, specifically, to subvert it. And while subversions can be a good thing, I don’t think every game needs to or wants to subvert it; they’d rather do something else that the trope facilitates.

But, at any rate, Sarkeesian doesn’t actually want that to happen anyway:

On the surface the Dude in Distress and the Damsel in Distress may appear similar — however they’re not actually equivalent. To understand why they are different we need to examine the broader historical and cultural implications of the two plot devices.

First there’s been no shortage of men in leading or heroic roles in video games or in any other creative medium for that matter. In fact one recent study found that only about 4% of modern titles are exclusively designed around a woman in the leading role. Since men are still largely the default for protagonists, the rare dude in distress plotline does not add to any longstanding gendered tradition in storytelling.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, damsel’ed female characters tend to reinforce pre-existing regressive notions about women as a group being weak or in need of protection because of their gender, while stories with the occasional helpless male character do NOT perpetuate anything negative about men as a group since there is no long-standing stereotype of men being weak or incapable because of their gender.

For the first point, as we get more women in heroic roles, then that problem will go away … and, in fact, the male character having to be in a heroic role contributes just as much to a longstanding gendered tradition. For the second, as I just pointed out female characters now can be seen as stronger and not in need of protection, and in many modern and deeper games even if they pull out the “Damsel in Distress” trope they often include strong female characters, and so that overall impression just doesn’t hold any more … or, at least, not to the degree that one can really complain about it. What stops us from having more Dudes in Distress is, in fact, the idea that men can’t be vulnerable, not that women are inherently weak or in need of protection just ’cause they’re women.

Sarkeesian also reveals the depth of her misunderstanding of the Damsel in Distress trope when she talks about Spelunky:

To help illustrate this point let’s quickly take a look at the indie game Spelunky. Originally released in 2009 the game included a stereotypical damsel in distress as a gameplay mechanic whose rescue rewarded the player with bonus health. The 2012 HD remake of the game for Xbox Live again features the stock character damsel (complete with newly upgraded boob jiggle). However, this time an option was added to the menu that allows players to select a replacement for the default woman in peril by switching to either a Chippendales-style hunk or a dog instead.

Setting aside the fact that – if a female character is easily interchangeable with a dog then its probably a pretty good indication that something is wrong – Merely providing an optional gender-swap is not a quick and easy fix, especially where stock character style damsels are concerned.

The introduction of the dog highlights the light, simple, and yes, shallow scope of the game and its use of the trope, but is still a good example of how the trope works. Sarkeesian essentially says that replacing a character with a dog suggests something, I suppose, dehumanizing about the portrayal; in some sense, they have no more importance to the plot than a dog would. Which is true. But the issue is that a dog — presumably, a beloved pet or pet-to-be — does fit the trope: as a character that you care about and want to rescue. Sure, it’s a goofy presentation … but so are the sexpot and the hunk. But to get away with putting a dog there doesn’t denigrate the female character, but instead recognizes just how important pets can be to people. After all, if people didn’t want to rescue the dog, then it wouldn’t provide a motivation to play the game, and so would, at most, be doing nothing … which is the exact opposite of why the Damsel trope is used.

That said I don’t necessarily think equal opportunity damseling is the answer. Simply reversing the gender roles of a problematic convention so that more men are damsel’ed in more games is not the best long-term solution, even if the practice might be subversive in the short term to help demonstrate a very real gender disparity in the medium. Ultimately we need to think beyond the cliché altogether.

In order to do this, we need to capture what the Damsel trope captures: the motivation to finish and play the game, the ability to provide the sadistic choice, the ability to provide a revenge motivation that can be balanced against the sane and reasonable approach, and so on. I’m going to skip for now the subversions she talks about that aren’t subversions, and go to her suggested alternative:

“Like many fairy tales, this story begins once upon a time with the kidnapping of a princes. She dutifully waits for a handsome hero to arrive and rescue her. Eventually, however, she grows tired of the damseling and decides it’s high time to save herself. Of course if she’s going to be the protagonist of this particular adventure she’s going to need to acquire a slightly more practical outfit. After her daring escape, she navigates the forbidden forest, leveling up her skills along the way. Upon reaching her kingdom, she discovers the inevitable yet unexpected plot twist; the royal counsel has usurped power and were responsible for her kidnapping. Branded a traitor and an outlaw in her own land, she unlocks new disguises and stealth abilities to infiltrate the city walls. She makes her way through the final castle to confront the villainous council, and abolish the monarchy forever.”

A story idea like this one would work to actively subvert traditional narrative expectations. The princess is placed in a perilous situation but instead of being made into the goal for a male protagonist, she uses her intelligence, creativity, wit and strength to engineer her own escape and then become the star of her own adventure.

So, just like the female city elf starting storyline in Dragon Age: Origins … that she completely and totally ignored while talking about how terrible its use of the “Damsel in Distress” trope was in the male city elf storyline. Riiiiiiight.

Now, some people might say that this isn’t that important. Who cares if she didn’t mention this? But by her not mentioning it, it indicates that either she didn’t know it existed or didn’t think she should mention it. If it’s the first — and I think it’s the first — it indicates that her research is, in fact, rather lax; after all, it’s the other half of the same story that she managed to find in DA:O to get her example of the Damsel. But if you don’t like that, then we can ask why she knew about it but didn’t think it important enough to mention it. One reason could be that she thought that she didn’t really need an example of this, but then she describes it thusly:

A true subversion of the trope would need to star the damsel as the main playable character. It would have to be her story. Sadly, there are very few games that really explore this idea. So as a way to illustrate how a deconstruction could work let’s try a thought experiment to see if we can create a hypothetical game concept of our own.

If she knew it existed, she could have used it as an example, instead of arguing that she was entertaining a “hypothetical game concept”. In fact, taking this example could lead her through an entire, given storyline that people could check out for themselves, and provide a good example for other game designers to follow. In fact, DA:O, as I already said, has its cake and eats it, too. Want a traditional Damsel in Distress plot? Play the male City Elf. Want the subversion? Play the female City Elf. So going with the hypothetical instead of the actual example really hurts the effectiveness of her message.

Alternatively, she could have known that it existed, but didn’t want to mention it because it clashed with the narrative she wanted to express, which would likely be that current mainstream gaming isn’t doing things like this and so we need to push them to provide these sorts of feminist/Social Justice sorts of narratives in their games. Highlighting cases where mainstream game designers are providing that kinda weakens that argument, and also makes it look like her commentary and educational material might be mostly unnecessary; the existing mechanisms are working, only slowly. So presenting these companies only in negative rather than positive lights maintains the idea that gaming needs to change, and allows her to stump for the Social Justice heavy indie games that she seems to favour.

I think the charitable interpretation is that she just isn’t aware of it because she doesn’t understand gaming very well, and so instead cherry picks examples without understanding the full context of the games or of games themselves, especially since it’s pretty consistent with a lot of her commentary (I’ll give another example in a minute). You are free, of course, to take another option if you so choose and can justify it.

At any rate, this example doesn’t, in fact, replace the “Loved One in Distress” trope. There’s no personal reason for the character to start out on their quest; it’s all a standard “Regain your kingdom” plot. The only possible personal reason the main character can have for doing this is revenge for being locked up, or for having their throne usurped. There’s nothing here to allow for the Sadistic Choice. Ultimately, it’s a game concept that can work — and has been done — but it is a shallow one compared to what the “Loved One in Distress” offers. If she wants to get beyond the “cliche”, she needs to actually replace it with something that does the job as well if not better.

So, let’s return to the ironic subversions that she doesn’t like. She lists a number of them, but one of the keys in a number of them is this: the hero rescues the damsel, and either doesn’t get the reward of her love, or else ends up not wanting that reward. Sarkeesian doesn’t consider this true subversions:

These titles may be attempting to make fun of gaming conventions like the “heroic rescue” or the “smooch of victory” but they don’t fundamentally change, challenge or subvert the Damsel in Distress trope itself. The damsel’ed women remain as disempowered as ever.

True, but it does subvert an important part of the trope, a part that the feminist focus on only the female side of the equation misses completely: the idea that the damsel is, in fact, inherently desirable. Recall the first video, where the hero sees the damsel, and falls immediately in love with her because she’s just that beautiful. That’s all she needed to convince the hero to go out and risk his entire life and go through hell to rescue her. Nothing else was necessary. Well, these games push the line that that isn’t enough — in the case where the damsel ends up bring really annoying afterwards — and subverts the idea that if you fight hard enough and prove yourself that you’ll get the reward. Thus, they can suggest that a woman needs to be more than just pretty to be worthy of saving — meaning that she actually has to have some other desirable qualities as well — and can break the idea that if the hero simply is nice to her and rescues her that he’ll get a reward … something that feminists complaining about “Nice Guys [tm]” certainly want to see.

Let me round it all out with her discussion of co-operative games:

In fact cooperation and mutual aid are concepts that hold an enormous amount of gaming potential. True co-op games, MMOs and some RPGs offer gameplay possibilities that, if done right, can facilitate a mutual aid style adventure involving people of all genders cooperating. Where is My Heart and Thomas was Alone both employ innovative examples of mutual aid by having a single player control multiple characters working together towards a common goal.

So, uh … having a single player control multiple characters working together towards a common goal, like she talks about in those examples of games that she clearly really, really likes, is innovative? If you allow games where the player creates the entire party, it goes back at least as far as the Gold Box AD&D games; if you want to limit it to characters created by the game with personalities, then Baldur’s Gate did that. DA:O and Mass Effect — two more games that she only mentions negatively — do it in detail. Mass Effect especially ties your relationships with your companions into the plot in the last game, making for incredibly emotional experiences. Just having a single player control multiple characters is not, in any way, innovative. Only someone who doesn’t understand games at all would say this.

That being said, let me look at some actually innovative uses of the co-operation approach. The first is one that I’m sure she won’t like, which is Lost Dimension. This game takes the bog-standard JRPG approach of having full team of characters that all have different personalities and abilities — and see why just doing that isn’t innovative? — and adds in a traitor mechanism: once or twice per floor, one of them will be working for the enemy. At the end of each floor, the entire team votes for who they think is the traitor, and whomever they decide on is “erased”. The player has some kind of mental powers that allow them to sniff out the traitor, and thus convince the others — through the means of telling them who they think the traitor is in after battle conversations and due to not including them in battles — to kill the right person. If not, a traitor survives and at the end of the game they try to kill you before you meet up with the final villain.

This is not the sort of game Sarkeesian seems to favour, as it would seem to be too violent and dark for her. However, this allows the game to create a number of strong emotional reactions. As each team member has their own personality, you might find that you have to kill the character you really like and save the one you hate. On my first playthrough, I had to kill the character that I liked the most so far — Yoko — instead of the character I hated (although I got to kill him later in that playthrough). But in order to get the true ending, you have to max your camaraderie with all of your team members. Which means you have to get to know them and form a bond with them. So, at that point, you’re killing characters that you understand and know the most about, which can be wrenching. But most importantly, they feel a bond with you. Some of them talk about possibly getting into a relationship with you. Some of them talk to you as if they were your best friend, and about how much they respect you. They do this even as you have them erased. In another playthrough, I had to erase both Yoko and Toya after maxing out their stories, and their comments were utterly wrenching, as they went relatively happily to their erasure because of their bond with me. This is not an experience that you can get without pushing the co-operative and bonding line and marrying it to the traitor mechanism, and thus including that tension.

For a game that is innovative but might be more to Sarkeesian’s liking, let’s look at Persona 3 and Persona 4. Again, these start from the bog-standard JRPG “Team of diverse characters trying to save the world”, and adds on the relatively typical “And you need to bond with them to gain bonuses”, but they add in two wrinkles. The first is that you have to bond with your team mates by socializing with them, and generally in helping them solve some kind of personal problem they’re having. The second is that you also gain power by socializing with normal people who have no relation to the threat that you’re trying to stop; they aren’t even aware of its existence. So, essentially, in these games you gain power by making friends, and if you do it right each S-link you complete grants you some power at the end of the game that allows you to defeat the main menace, in addition to the bonuses you get in terms of the Personas you can use in the game.

These are innovative uses of the co-operative model. The games she cites might have some innovative mechanisms as well, but it sure isn’t going to be that they have one player controlling multiple characters with a common goal.

My summary of the first set of videos is this:

1) Sarkeesian doesn’t seem to understand the trope that she’s examining. She doesn’t understand what it’s used for, what it provides to a game designer, and why that’s important to them. This only becomes more clear when she tries to make suggestions for what might replace it.

2) Sarkeesian doesn’t understand games very well. She doesn’t understand the context of the games she’s talking about, doesn’t understand what they’re trying to do, doesn’t understand what games need, and seems woefully unaware of the state of gaming as a whole.

Now, if she was just doing a simple series of youtube videos, this wouldn’t be a problem, and I almost certainly be ignoring her. But she is someone who has influence, and that people are looking to in order to make games … better, I guess. And as someone who likes to play games, and as someone who Not-So-Casually reads about them and listens to what is going on in those circles, I’ll keep coming across this again and again. So, I might as well comment on it; if nothing else, it’ll get this crap out of my head so I can focus on other things, and maybe someone somewhere will find what I have to say interesting or meaningful.

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