Rescue Me: The First Tropes vs. Women Video
“To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions.” – Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
The first video of Anita Sarkeesian’s video series, Tropes vs. Women, was released last week. Titled “Damsels in Distress (Part 1)” it got the ball rolling pretty quickly: laying out two fantastically detailed, easily recognizable examples of the Damsel in Distress trope, Princess Peach and Princess Zelda, and showing us a time when a really cool female character, the heroine of a never-published game called Dinosaur Planet, was literally transformed into a distressed damsel for Fox McCloud to rescue in Star Fox Adventures. My colleague Andrew wrote about the video earlier this week, and I’m popping up my head up from my usual editing duties to provide another voice in the discussion.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend watching the video on YouTube.
Focusing on Peach and Zelda was great, because almost every gamer (and a lot of non-gamers) knows the story of those two. They’re kidnapped and they need to be rescued; that’s the game. I don’t think Sarkeesian is ignoring game development when she talks about them (or the other two dozen or so examples she gives), she’s directly talking about how the trope is used as a plot device to give gamers a reason to play. In fact, she says that “[t]he hero’s fight to retrieve his stolen property … provides lazy justification for the actual gameplay.”
The fact that developers utilize tropes like this is absolutely to send messages to players. And, the (wrong) assumption is that all players are men and that those men have a fantasy to rescue weak women. That’s why the big, burly hero exists (though neither Mario or Link are really that type of hero): so men can play a strength power fantasy. That’s why the bearded, older wizard exists: so men can play an intelligence power fantasy. And, that’s why the damsel in distress exists: so men can play a rescue power fantasy. Would Super Mario Bros. be any different if Bowser had stolen Mario’s dog? Honestly, can you say yes?
See, the hard part of this discussion starts at the ground level, and it’s something Sarkeesian doesn’t really touch upon, at least in this video. I think that to really get something from this discussion, you have to accept that we live in a sexist culture and that a sexist culture is a bad thing. Excusing video game companies because “that’s the way games are, and companies want to make money” ignores the reality that video games, as Sarkeesian said, “don’t exist in a vacuum.” Rehashing these story lines over and over again may not be intentionally sexist, but it absolutely contributes to the sexist culture we live in, and that sexist culture actually harms everyone, regardless of gender.
I feel a little lecturey here. My point is that rejecting your privilege is hard, and I think it’s the first step in really getting what Sarkeesian is trying to say. Sure, Nintendo is just retelling the Andromeda myth, but that’s not a good thing. Beyond lazy storytelling, which is easy to dismiss, it’s contributing to a world where little girls have to grow up playing games where women are never the heroes — they are only the trophies — and little boys grow up thinking of women that way. I don’t really like that world. But we can’t work to change it if we don’t think about it, and that’s why this video series is important.
Granted, it’s better out there than it was when Princesses Peach and Zelda first came along. I’m hoping we’ll see some positive examples of female player characters, or at least ways that the trope has been turned on its head, or used in a way that adds depth to a female character instead of stripping her of any value beyond that of a trophy or a prized pet. Supposedly that’s coming up in Part 2. I’m looking forward to it.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the beginning of the video, one that I think is important to remember as the discussion (hopefully) develops: “it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.” Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go play some video games.