Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

The Damsel in Distress Trope

You may remember the kerfuffel around Anita Sarkeesian being slammed by every gamer asshole on the Internet for her attempts to kickstart a video series of feminist criticism of games.  Fortunately, the harassment crusade against her kickstarter failed (and failed hilariously, I might add), because her videos have been coming out and they are seriously, seriously awesome.  Deep, well-researched, and thought-provoking.  Watch them all.  Do it.

This is not to say I completely agree with her.  Like most media critics on the topic of gender equality in media, she takes her position too far and is somewhat naive about what the ramifications of her viewpoints.  At one point, she pretty much claims that rescuing men isn’t really a problem, but rescuing a woman almost always is, because it reinforces the idea that women are trophies that need to be rescued.

My problems are as follows: first off, the idea that more protagonists in games should be females is completely accurate.  Should they ever be the majority of protagonists?  Not while our target market is mostly male.  Players prefer characters that they can identify and bond with.  Most players prefer a character like them.  (Some may float the idea that both the protagonist and the rescued target should be  gender swappable – this is not a casual change and has dramatic, not-very-good effects on both a games’ budget and the quality of whatever storytelling, writing and character development goes on in it)

The second issue is that the general prevailing school of thought amongst modern pop culture writers is that making stakes personal is a much more mature and emotionally resonant motivation for a hero than generic ‘save the world’ or ‘steal the macguffin’ type stories.  For example, Mission: Impossible 3 was considered a much more serious movie than the first two in the series because the stakes were about the protagonist rescuing the woman he loved, rather than fighting over vaguely indistinguishable shadow agencies with interchangeable, disposable evil plans.  Taken, as well, is a movie that resonates because it is about a CIA operative who is forced to use his skills meant to topple countries and assassinate dictators, in order to kill thugs in order to rescue his daughter.  These are both damsel-in-distress stories, but they are both considered to have much stronger storytelling than, say, your average run-of-the-mill James Bond flick.

The reason why is simple: the damsel in distress trope is not uniformly negative.  One could argue that it creates the idea that women are simple objects without emotions, goals, or capabilities on their own.  And that’s fair.  However, it also teaches our kids that ‘above all, love is worth fighting for.’  And that, I would argue, is not a negative message.

That being said, the fact that Nintendo actually greenlit Super Princess Peach (1:25 in the video above) is staggering.


1 Comment

  1. SPP isn’t that staggering: Japan is somewhat behind America in terms of feminist ideas.

    But yeah — the damsel in distress storyline is overused because it works really well for many men. It’s also overused. It’s used cheaply. It objectifies women. And it’s used as an alternative to figuring out a better plot. It’s the knee-jerk-can’t-bother-coming-up-with-a-plot plot.

    And, in large part thanks to her videos, I think it’s stopped working on me. My genuine thanks to Anita for that.

    Regarding the parity of male/female protagonists: I think you’re wrong. I think we would be in a better world if games-with-fixed-protagonists were — say, 40% female, 60% male. I also think we’d be in a better world if, say, 40-60% of game designers were women, and publishers, and the like. But that’s a separate argument.

    But — to continue throwing arguments around in random directions: these things DON’T teach our kids ‘above all, love is worth fighting for.’ It teaches our SONS that, or something like that. It teaches our DAUGHTERS ‘if you’re in trouble, eventually a man will come rescue you.

    You know, eventually.

    Maybe you should take up knitting while you wait?’

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