The raging controversy kicked off by Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter to examine female tropes in video gaming has debuted today...and the world hasn't ended. This first installment explores how the Damsel in Distress became one of the most widely used gendered cliche in the history of gaming and why the trope has been core to the popularization and development of the medium itself. Sarkeesian explains in part one, reviewing video games of the past thirty years:
As a trope the Damsel in Distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must then be rescued by a male character, usually providing a core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.
After a series of interesting examples that traces the origins of Donkey Kong back to Popeye, Sarkeesian explains the end result of “damselfication”:
One way to think about Damsel’d characters is via what’s called the subject/object dichotomy. In the simplest terms, subjects act and objects are acted upon. The subject is the protagonist, one the story is centered on and the one doing most of the action. In video games this is almost always the main playable character and the one from whose perspective most of the story is seen.
So the damsel trope typically makes men the “subject” of the narratives while relegating women to the “object”. This is a form of objectification because as objects, damsel’ed women are being acted upon, most often becoming or reduced to a prize to be won, a treasure to be found or a goal to be achieved.
The brief intro sequence accompanying many classic arcade games tends to reinforce the framing of women as a possession that’s been stolen from the protagonist.
Sarkeesian rightfully points out that this is a lazy tactic on behalf of game designers:
The hero’s fight to retrieve his stolen property then provides lazy justification for the actual gameplay. At its heart the damsel trope is not really about women at all, she simply becomes the central object of a competition between men (at least in the traditional incarnations). I’ve heard it said that “In the game of patriarchy women are not the opposing team, they are the ball.” So for example, we can think of the Super Mario franchise as a grand game being played between Mario and Bowser. And Princess Peach’s role is essentially that of the ball.
After delving into the damselfication of Princess Peach and Zelda, Sarkeesian gets to the heart of the problem with this sort of trope:
The damsel in distress is not just a synonym for “weak”, instead it works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones. No matter what we are told about their magical abilities, skills or strengths they still ultimately captured or otherwise incapacitated and then must wait for rescue.
Just to be clear, I am not saying that all games using the damsel in distress as a plot device are automatically sexist or have no value. But it’s undeniable that popular culture is a powerful influence in or lives and the Damsel in Distress trope as a recurring trend does help to normalize extremely toxic, patronizing and paternalistic attitudes about women.
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