It seems an age ago that a tiny Kickstarter project helmed by a woman named Anita Sarkeesian created a whirlwind of controversy within the industry. The concept was simple: Sarkeesian, a feminist with a series of YouTube videos exploring female portrayals in various media, would create a series of videos examining video games and their treatment of women. Death threats, misogynistic rants and otherwise deplorable behavior ensued before ultimately dying down in favor of the next controversy (can we even remember what it was now?). Finally, after all this time, Anita’s first video in the ‘Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’ series has released on YouTube, simply titled “Damsel in Distress Part 1.”
As a female who has been gaming since the 80s who often explores how women are portrayed and viewed in video games, I have been curious about this series since the beginning. Now that I have watched the first episode, I have to admit I have some mixed reactions about it.
Disclaimer: Keep in mind this is merely my opinion on the matter. This is not a “right” or “wrong” discussion, but rather candid observations.
The video begins with Sarkeesian acknowledging that the damsel in distress trope is almost as old as time itself — Greek mythology, epic poems, fairy tales and modern movies are constantly rehashing this concept because it “works” as a lazy plot device and sells. Numerous examples are cited from history before moving into a lovely bit of video game history trivia. Dinosaur Planet and its subsequent revamp starts down an interesting path in which a wonderful conversation might bloom. That is twice, now, that Nintendo has poo-pooed a female-centric adventure game and the cause/effect of this would make for a great discussion. Unfortunately, this is abandoned to instead discuss the history of kidnapped females and how they worked their way into video games.
The history of the Donkey Kong, Mario and Zelda franchises are discussed, with countless examples of the roles Peach and Zelda play. I commend Sarkeesian for correctly identifying this as objectification and not misogyny, as so much of this is commonly mislabeled. But, having said that, tell me you have something more than just Peach, Zelda and arcade games. Tell me we’re not discussing the video game equivalent of Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake.
This first part of the video focuses entirely on Nintendo and arcade properties. Peach and Zelda are renowned within the industry as being the consumate damsels in distress. I don’t know a single gamer who would point to Peach or Zelda as accurate or compelling video game portrayals of women. Maybe this is my anti-Nintendo streak showing, but considering these games have been rehashing the same concept for the past 20 years, even when pointing to something as recent as Super Mario Galaxy 2, the reference still feels dated.
Which brings me to the arcade games. Something we, as feminists, rarely like to admit is that, historically, the video game industry has been a male-dominated market. As a girl who was a hardcore gamer in the 80s and 90s, I know all too well that I was the minority. Heck, “oddity” might be a better word. It’s not a justification for anything, but when she shows arcade games demonstrating the teenage male power fantasy, it should come as little surprise — that was the audience at the time.
The games industry has come a long way since then. She specifically mentions how awful the intro to Double Dragon is and, in hindsight, she’s not wrong. If a game released today featured a hero’s girlfriend getting punched and dragged off, showing her underwear, you can only imagine the reaction. She mentions that Double Dragon Neon released recently, but here’s the thing: as an industry, we look at it as a silly relic. When ‘The Girlfriend’ is punched and thrown over his shoulder, I think we, as a collective, rolled our eyes, much as we do when viewing 80s action movies.
You could argue that this constant rehashing of the female as an obtainable object was the foundation of most modern game developers’ interest in video games, therefore establishing a concept of what is “good” or “bad,” but as Sarkeesian herself says, this trope is everywhere. It’s not unique to video games and more importantly, without more examples of how this played out in modern video game culture, it’s difficult to continue the conversation in a meaningful way.
Also, as an aside, for as much time as she spends discussing the damsels of the 80s, I noticed she didn’t mention that it was the same time period that also birthed Samus Aran.
Outside looking in
My biggest concern about these videos is also the reason I didn’t back the Kickstarter project to begin with: Sarkeesian’s experience with video games is fairly limited. She ends by saying she was a big Nintendo and Sega fan as a child, but from her heavy use of Nintendo properties it is quite clear she is not as in touch with the industry as a gamer. Why is this a problem? Well, I’ll tell you:
It’s very difficult to discuss cause/effect of industry trends upon a culture when you yourself are not part of said culture. It is very clear that Sarkeesian has done her homework and for that, I respect her. She did not come at this with her own misconceptions and observations without having a least familiarized herself with the history. But without being part of a community, it’s very difficult to walk in and say “Hey, I read some history about this community and let me tell you what’s going on here…” It’s hard for it to not appear a little naïve.
The big question
It’s not to say that criticism and critique should only come from within the industry or even that Sarkeesian’s video was bad, but the burning question in my mind was simply, “What’s the point?” The 23-minute video does a marvelous job pointing out things we already know: Peach and Zelda are damsels in distress and old arcade games loved this trope. This is known. My concern is that I really, really wanted this video to start a serious conversation. Not only start a conversation, but advance the conversation. This video merely states facts that are already known and with her constant referencing Peach and Zelda, it feels like we’re spinning our wheels.
Now, this is only Part 1, meaning there will be an eventual Part 2, which may expand upon some of these points. There is a lot going on in the industry in regards to this trope which would have felt more current and served the conversation better. I appreciate that a woman is looking at this topic and evaluating it. I just wish she would have taken a road less traveled.