The second installment of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women in Video Games series has been unleashed upon the internet, and that means there’s a brand new round of arguments over the slippery question of whether or not video games have kind of messed up attitudes about women. I’m rarely able to resist an argument that will eventually lead me to call someone a dummy, so I’ve been seeing an awful lot of discussion about Sarkeesian on Reddit, Facebook, and Youtube, the three best places on the internet to engage in intelligent debate.
For reference, here is the video: Damsels in Distress Part 2
Warning: The video and this article contain spoilers for numerous games. If you’ve seen the video, you’re safe to read the piece.
People don’t like being told they’re bad. Nevermind that Sarkeesian isn’t calling these people bad, because she doesn’t have to do it explicitly. All she has to do is say this piece of media that she likes contains material indicative of a harmful complex of attitudes regarding women, and BLAM, she’s cast aspersions on the character of anyone else who professes to like that same piece of media! She’s wily as fuck.
Anyway, this series has gotten a lot of netizens’ ire up, and because of that starting point of defensive anger, a good number of them have mistaken notions about what Sarkeesian is trying to do. She’s not trying to call the game makers bad or sexist. She’s not trying to call gamers bad or sexist. She’s not trying to call the games themselves bad or sexist. What she’s trying to do, and what she declares that she’s trying to do, is demonstrate a TREND of sexist IDEAS within games, and how they hide within games. There’s other stuff she’s trying to do and a very long list of stuff she’s NOT trying to do, but this is the basic gist so far.
This problem of synecdochal guilt, whereby a fault within one thing indicates a full-blown-wet-shit status of the thing as a whole, and of people who happen to like that thing, is pretty common, and combated by denying that there’s even the smallest issue in the first place instead of trying to get over the logical fallacy.
With this background set, let’s examine legitimate criticism of Sarkeesian’s video.
“Tropes are not a bad thing. They’re a trend, an established narrative meme that can be recognized and named in a given narrative. Sarkeesian points out a lot of instances of the damsel in distress trope in games, sure, but she’s ignoring the context. Mario saves Peach because Bowser kidnapped her, not because he thinks she’s lesser than him! She’s the princess, for crying out loud! That dude in Castlevania kills his girlfriend when she turns into a vampire because SHE TURNED INTO A VAMPIRE. These games aren’t making some statement about women by making them the damsel, that’s just what happens. The game’s creator isn’t sexist, they just wanted to make a game where you get strong and save a lady! I’m not sexist, I just wanna play games where I shoot stuff! Leave me alone!”
There’s really a bewildering number of comments that act as though game stories are REAL and not written by human beings. It’s not world history. The only thing that’s relevant is that in some (a lot of) Mario games, Peach is entirely helpless and does absolutely nothing but get carted around to another castle over and over until Mario finally saves her. We are talking about the damsel in distress trope; here’s an instance. If we were talking about the “dragon turtle falls into lava pit” trope, we would likewise ignore every bit of context and focus only on all the times Bowser fell into the lava pit. Context is nothing. This is about gathering data.
The damsel in distress trope necessarily makes the woman lesser. The fact that Peach is the princess should drive this home, if anything. For all her vested power, she’s still being captured by King Koopa and can’t do shit until Mario comes to get her. Mario has all the power, here. HE IS BETTER. It’s the text of the story. It’s a statement, even if the creator didn’t mean to make it.
That’s not necessarily bad. I don’t particularly care if Princess Peach can’t take care of herself and needs a hero like Mario to save her, but it is undeniable that the game has been written and built to make that true. It counts as a point in the damsel in distress basket. And that’s the real issue, not about how individual games exhibit this or that trope.
Let’s just for fun assume that the media has an effect on people and how they think the world works—there exists this trope that shows women to be incompetent, helpless, in need of a male savior. If the trope was prevalent enough, what might media consumers start to think about women? And what does it mean that one of Nintendo’s flagship characters is so often relegated to damsel duty? While it’s tradition that Peach gets captured in Mario games, and I don’t care to fuck wit’ Nintendo tradition, they’re still putting out a game where the principal female character’s only role is to be a treasure for the player/protagonist to go win.
“Instead of complaining, why not try to actually make changes from the inside? Encourage girls to get into game development. Encourage girls to buy and play games, period. The industry is run by white males. The market is focused in on white adolescent males. There’s a demand there for white male characters, and to produce anything else is a huge risk. Have you ever heard the writing adage, ‘write what you know?’ Well, mute, useless, helpless women is all white males know. Diversify the development teams, and you’ll get your precious female and minority characters. And if you don’t like how games treat women, vote with your wallet and don’t buy them.”
“Write what you know” doesn’t mean what they think it means. It’s about using your experiences and your emotions and relationships and stuff to write resonantly. It’s kind of the method you would use to write a fleshed-out female character. Games writers are perfectly capable of doing this. And if they aren’t FUCKING HIRE ME, PLEASE.
The “practical” games industry argument is always annoying to me, because how fucking often do nerds complain about the Xbox One’s “always on” internet policy or its creepy Kinect spy camera or how Sonic games are all terrible or how Mass Effect 3 didn’t have a good enough ending, considering all that time they wasted having fun with it? And a lot of the time, people actually expect to be listened to and think their complaints should be heeded! Maybe these people who argue that complaints are good for nothing aren’t the same people that bitched and moaned about Modern Warfare 2‘s PC support and then bought it anyway, but it’s irrelevant and also I doubt it. It’s kinda goofy to complain about it, because video games are frivolous and goofy, but it’s just as valid to complain about sexist portrayals of women in games as it is to complain about any other aspect of them.
It’s also annoying because, like, getting into the games industry is really hard, man! Those people work their asses off. But honestly, you shouldn’t have to work your ass off to feel like your gender is treated with respect. I’m just gonna go out on a limb here and say that it’s stupid to demand that people put their time in at Ubisoft or wherever before games writers make them actual characters and don’t resort to stereotyping and consider them as a protagonist. That’s stupid. The market argument always carries with it the implication that straight white male gamers can’t handle complex characters of other demographics. That’s stupid. You’re stupid. The whole attitude just stinks. They’ll readily admit that they’re in control of the games industry, and then call feminists entitled for wanting female characters that aren’t shitty.
“What’s this business about violence against women in games? In Gears of War, thousands of men are chainsawed in half, curbstomped, shot to death, blown up, and eaten by brumaks. Men clearly get the short end of the stick here, so why is Anita so concerned with ONE scene where a woman is euthanized by her loving, heartbroken husband? I mean, he’s CRYING.”
The issue here is again one of agency. The men in Gears of War are nearly ALL soldiers. They’re choosing to be there, or if they were drafted, they still have the capacity in the world of the game to defend themselves. Maria, the only woman I can even remember from the two Gears games I played, was kidnapped and disappeared, then came out a husk that served as a reason for Dom to make a terrible sacrifice and experience further tragedy and make him cry. Not only is she helpless, her ONLY purpose in the game is to add to Dom’s own purpose. The male gender experiences a higher volume of violence in the game, but in terms of agency, and the respect that the story pays to each, men are still way ahead. They’re driving the story and winning the war and trying to save their women.
In most games, the only time a woman dies is because of the story. These examples have to be scrutinized individually, but in many of them, e.g. Gears of War 2, Max Payne, The Darkness, the woman’s death is serving the ends of giving the protagonist depth. In other instances, it’s done solely for shock value. This is one of the trickier areas of Sarkeesian’s critiques so far, because parts of it draw upon societal inequities between men and women, which many people are loath to acknowledge.
There are numerous games that have female enemies. And I…rarely see people complaining about those? What happens to cannon-fodder isn’t of much concern to people exploring narrative tropes. There’s definitely things that can be objected to—overly sexualized designs, orgasmic death cries and pain barks, enemy backstories that fall into sexist tropes (for example a type of female enemy who were palace courtesans, turned evil by some demon?). However, violence visited equally upon men and women, e.g. on the battlefield, is a lot less of a problem (unfortunately it’s still kind of a problem because of real-world violence against women and the patriarchy and shit, sorry, I almost made it all the way through without using the p-word).
“The games Sarkeesian talks about are not known for their thoughtful or quality narratives. I’m not taking life lessons from Gears of War, I’m just trying to shoot some aliens. Stop looking for things to complain about and just let me shoot some aliens!”
A lot of people object to Sarkeesian’s choice of examples, that they’re bad games, or not plot-focused games, or plot-focused but not widely considered a game with great writing, like Bioshock or Silent Hill 2.
The quality of a narrative is completely separate from the messages it sends, and from how affected the consumer is by it. You don’t absorb values consciously. It requires actual thought to AVOID absorbing values. That’s the — excuse me — value of critical thinking guides like Tropes vs Women. It teaches media consumers how to recognize certain recurring notions about women, therefore making it easier for them to avoid just blithely accepting the fifth time they see a woman transform into a monster that needs to be beaten into anime schoolgirl normalcy.
Looking for things to complain about may sound like the hobby of a loser, but what if you actually FIND something? Something that a good number of people also think is worth complaining about, asking game developers to reconsider? A lot of people say “we already know damsels in distress are a common trope, we know women get killed in media for shock value. You don’t need to whine about it.” That’s true. Most of us know that. What’s harder, though, and much less common, is understanding what these things MEAN. As explained in the video, a damsel in distress has been turned into an object, a ball being fought over by protagonist and antagonist. Women are killed for shock value because they’re presumed to be weaker, perpetually in need of good guys to save them, more intrinsically precious (keep in mind that “precious” doesn’t mean “better”). These are pretty much basic facts, but many people aren’t aware of them, and a lot of that group will deny such facts on the basis of some political vendetta against a woman who’s trying to destroy video games. But they’re vital facts. That’s what makes the trope objectionable.
Despite Sarkeesian’s imperative tone, all she’s really doing is pointing out facts. She’s building a base of knowledge, and so far I haven’t seen anything in her analysis of games that’s even arguable. To my mind, a large portion of the criticism Anita Sarkeesian and her video series gets comes from a misunderstanding of literary criticism. Pointing out problematic elements of a game doesn’t mean the game is bad, or that you shouldn’t like it. It doesn’t mean that the developer is sexist, and it doesn’t mean that you’re sexist for liking it. This isn’t about you. You can enjoy the most problematic media around and still retain your “good person” status. But this is a matter of critical thinking. It’s about questioning and troubling and teasing out meaning from things that often don’t make an effort to say ANYTHING beyond the most basic plot. And when it’s information that’s relevant to the societal status of actual people, it’s the more responsible way to consume media.