A feminist reacts to Anita Sarkeesian’s ‘Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’

200px PeachNSMBW A feminist reacts to Anita Sarkeesians Tropes vs. Women in Video GamesIt 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.

History lesson

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.

double dragon av 209x300 A feminist reacts to Anita Sarkeesians Tropes vs. Women in Video GamesRelics of the past

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.

tombraider 1 300x168 A feminist reacts to Anita Sarkeesians Tropes vs. Women in Video Games

A modern twist on the damsel in distress is no less tropey, no matter how good the game.

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.

About Jen Bosier

Jen lives with her husband, daughter and super-villain cats. If she's not reading comics or engrossed in a WH40k novel, she's probably telling you which horror games you should be playing. She's a recovering member of the PC Master Race, and a reluctant Xbox fangirl. You can also find her on the Furious Fourcast.


  1. I happened to come across this, and as another long term gaming female, I agree completely with your assessment. Very nicely said.

  2. Philip Carlin says:

    I tend to agree, the video unfortunately had nothing that we (people who have played games for decades) did not already know and had mainly really old arcade game references.

    Maybe it made more sense to Anita to start with the way games were in the industry a long time ago (rather than just jump in at maybe a more recent arbitrary point), especially if further videos covers the much more modern games industry, we shall see.

    Even though I’m not part of the kickstarter backers, I do hope Anita’s video series is comprehensive and does end up containing more than just a fairly well known fact list; however I think possibly the focus should be more towards the games industry itself (rather than just what the player sees) if these sort of investigations are going to be a progressive point for change.

    To be fair I don’t think internal games industry focus was part of Anita’s original kickstarter description, so maybe a separate study would be required to accomplish that.

    I still found the video interesting though and hope it inspires many others to look at female/male character representation in games/games industry as well.

  3. Sarkeesian updated her blog with a photo of her with her research material: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7274/7619451560_2371b4cffb_z.jpg with the caption, “Anita with some of her research materials. See larger image on Flickr.” She also detailed with, “The researching phase has begun! So far we’ve purchased well over 300 games for this project. As of now we can play games from the following systems: SNES, Gamecube, Wii, PS2, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox, Xbox 360, iPad and PC/MAC. We are also looking to acquire a 3DS XL when it becomes available next month. Note that not all of the games being researched for this project are pictured above. All the digital games downloaded via Steam, PSN and XBLM are sadly not nearly as photogenic, but rest assured we are looking at classic titles from throughout the history of gaming.”

    I think a big portion of what she’s going for with these videos is to make people aware, who might not be, of what’s going on in the gaming world. She obviously fully intends for this to be as widely viewed as possible, so she can’t just rely on the viewer’s prior knowledge of all video games, and I bet she’s assuming what video games sales tell us – that the majority of viewers are most likely to be familiar with Mario or Zelda. Take me for example! Those are literally the two video games I’ve ever played (well, unless we count the Lion King game for Sega Genesis)!

    Considering this is only Part 1 of an – at least – 12 part series of videos, I’d fully expect her to fill me in, first, on what exactly she’s talking about. She even states at the end of Part 1 that in Part 2 she’ll be discussing more modern examples.

    Also, in regards to what you said about the intro to Double Dragon, “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.” – she’s done a whole video about the “retro sexism” and how it’s still bullshit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PD0Faha2gow&list=UU7Edgk9RxP7Fm7vjQ1d-cDA&index=23

    Please don’t take this as an attack, I don’t mean it as one whatsoever. I think what you wrote is great – I just want to continue the conversation you’ve opened up in your article. :)

  4. Didyoureadmymind? says:

    Context: Heard the video was up, watched it, combed through google looking for something that wasn’t either a summary and token praising of its existence or a summary dismissal of any of its points. Found this article.

    Jen, I am happy to say you seem to have ripped the thoughts right from my brain and laid them out in a word .doc.

    Like you, I was struck by the effectiveness of the intro at summing up the issue. Personally, I kind of think Nintendo slapped the Star Fox brand on Dinosaur Planet more for marketability reasons than anything else (they’re not exactly known for being daring when it comes to new IPs) but nonetheless it served to illustrate the point.

    I also felt like the rest of the video was stuck on sort of low-hanging fruit. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone (well, this is the internet, I really shouldn’t say that) who is going to argue that Peach and Zelda are strong, independent women (for the most part). I did like that she acknowledged the “hero’s quest to save the princess” is a story as old as time, recognized throughout almost all cultures in one form or another.

    On the topic of Samus, I have a feeling she may fit into another of Anita’s tropes. But since she hasn’t released a video on her yet, anything is just speculation.

    I absolutely agree that although the videos are good, they feel more like a summary than an analysis. While it is clear Anita did her homework (far more than when she made her comments about Bastion, hopefully) her lack of unique perspective hurts the possibility of these videos furthering a meaningful dialogue. They almost feel more like a look at tropes in games for people who are pretty unfamiliar with games in general.

    I like the issues Tropes vs. Women is bringing up. I just kind of wish someone with more insight were the one to do so. Hopefully this series will spawn further discussion, and let us advance the conversation that really needs to be had.

    And I just realized I sort of summarized a chunk of your article. Sorry. Like I said, took the words straight outta my brain. But thank you for writing this article. It comes across as honest and unbiased (as much as an Op-Ed can, anyway) in that you are looking both at the good, and the bad, and not taking the easy route of mindlessly cheering or booing.

    If this is the quality I can expect from this here website, well, you’ve got yourself a new reader. =)

    P.S. I decided to Google you and am pleasantly surprised to find you are not only a Forbes contributor, but a soundtrack reviewer! As a bit of a soundtrack junkie myself, this is a most pleasant surprise.

  5. Shayne O says:

    As an Academic she’s handlin this exactly as I would expect an academic to do so, by looking at the genealogy of the power structures in gaming, which means starting with the roots, the history. To observe she’s looking in part 1 at old games isn’t a valid criticism, its what she’s supposed to do!

    Saying , effectively, that shes examining history really cant work as a valid feminist critique because feminism is intrinsically a study of social construction, and social construction is (particularly in structuralist and post-structuralist feminism) primarily about locating discourse and discursive practices within a historical continuum. Its not enough to say “Whats happening?” ,we have to ask “How did we get here?”

    • Philip Carlin says:

      The link between ‘what’s happening?’ and ‘how did we get here?’ was certainly detailed by Anita for some of the most popular Nintendo games (Mario/Zelda), it will be interesting to see whether those links can be established to the majority of video game releases (as Nintendo software although high quality is just a drop in the ocean in game release terms) in the modern video gaming era.

      I personally wouldn’t have placed this (what Anita is producing) as any sort of academic study but that maybe due to my own view that 20 odd minute videos being produced would not do that type of study justice.

    • Tisiphone says:

      I feel so 21st century for saying this, but the pacing of her video was too slow for me! She is such an academic about it, and I would have liked to see her drop title after title mercilessly that falls for this trope all the way into modern games and then show games that avoid this trope or even do it well. I hope my idea isn’t too out of the box… Focusing on the negative is certainly necessary to bring awareness to its ubiquitousness, but I think gamers and creators watching this series would benefit from exposure to alternatives. It’s not enough to point out a problem without replacing it with better ideas.

      As for Jen, thank you for this informed article! I’ve been meaning to start a blog, and I think I’ll piggyback off yours since there’s been a need for more posts like yours.

  6. I appreciate the dialogue happening here, but I have to say, I think this is a fairly weak review/reaction. From what I can tell, your two main criticisms are that 1) She spends too much time on old stuff we already know, and 2) She’s somehow not adequately a part of the gaming community.

    As for 1), this is the first video in a 12 part series. Your criticism would be valid after even a few of the videos, but after the first? Not so much. Give it time – this is a logical place to start.

    As for 2), here we go again. Who dictates membership in a community? You’ve been playing games since the 80s? Pffft. I played Spacewar back in the 60s and have been hooked since. You’re an amateur. Look, she’s played games, she’s researched games, and she’s engaged in critical discourse about games. She’s “in,” whatever that even means. Besides, judge the argument on its merits, not the person behind the argument.

    • Darkside_HEro says:

      In all of Anita’s previous videos she has never had anything good to say about modern video games, she is the worst kind of critic.

    • Tisiphone says:

      I think it’s reasonable to ask that she immerse herself more in gaming vernacular so that she can have more context to work with.

  7. I have to disgaree with you on her researching skills. She was terrible at it, left out obvious things about the games she posted and showed heavily skewed and misleading cherry picked parts of games.
    By any researches standards, she’d get an F on her effort, which was lazy at best.

    I also don’t know if you heard of this thing called “trolls”
    When you talk about the hate commments, she gets them becuase she exemplifies them and makes herself the victim, which just fuels to troll fire to ANYONE who knows what the internet is.

    She is a joke and an embarassment to anyone who is a real feminist.

  8. Darkside_HEro says:

    This post expresses my own opinion better than I ever could.

  9. YesIndeed says:

    All I want to say is thank you. Thank you for making me no longer feel insane, or slow. After watching that video I came out of it without having a clue on the point being made, if she made any, or some sort of conclusion. Just that video games sometimes do things that are sexist.

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