Before we go into Anita Sarkeesian -- don't worry, you haven't missed anything. Her Damsels In Distress video still hasn't been posted -- I'd like to thank a few people who've helped out the blog over the last week or so.
Permutation Of Ninjas - A great egalitarian blog that deals with a ton of injustices against men, including heavy-hitting topics like rape and domestic violence. I'm always impressed with anyone who can tackle real-life issues like that with the skill that the PoN writers do because I know that I never could. Sites such as theirs, that focus on (among other things) mainstream men's issues, are the reason that I feel like I can write about misandry in video games and not have it shrugged off with statements like "oh, men are oppressed in video games? Women are oppressed in real life!!!" So I have a great deal of respect for Permutation Of Ninjas and others like them for speaking so candidly and passionately about social injustices.
When describing this blog, they wrote "imagine Anita Sarkeesian if she a) could write, and b) had any clue what she was talking about." I grinned for the whole day when I read that. Plus, when they posted a link to this blog on their Tumblr, my number of viewers leapt by about twenty percent. That's huge.
I'd also like to give thanks to all the people who reblogged it but I have to single out a couple. Sorry if you're not mentioned, it's just that these ones made it onto my traffic sources page:
Special Snowflake Hall Of Fame - I can't say that everything on this Tumblr appeals to me but I am very interested in the "My critiques of Tropes vs Women in video games" page. I'll be keeping a close eye on that one and that's actually the subject of this blog post.
Bits of Tropes Supporting Women in Video Games - Or "Awesome Lady Tropes", if you want the short version. I love this Tumblr! You know how feminist critics of the gaming industry like to decry female characters for objectification, lack of agency and so on and so forth? It can often come across as if they're saying "female characters all suck, they're all damsels in distress, they're all sexualised", etc. Awesome Lady Tropes is the exact opposite of that. The creator of that site is saying "female characters are awesome, female characters are badass, let's celebrate female characters! Yay!"
It's such a simple idea too; a picture of a female character, followed by several Tropes that describe her (so if you're a Troper looking for positive female game characters, this is the ideal place for you). This Tumblr makes me want to play the game of every single female character listed. It's a testament to how many great female characters there are out there, instead of the typical "Alyx Vance, Chell and Faith" that you hear from most feminist critics. As far as I can tell, it's only been around a week and I love it already. I'm adding it to the sidebar.
I'm not under any illusions; I know that several of the female characters listed are probably damsels in distress at some point but, unlike the critics of female characters, I don't think that's a deal-breaker on what makes a good or bad female character. The same goes for sexualisation and, most ridiculous of all, being associated with male characters. I love this Tumblr and I can't recommend it highly enough.
Genderratic - Genderratic is a blog that I've visited from time to time, mainly because I'm a fan of Typhon Blue's Youtube videos. She offers a fun perspective on men's issues that a ton of other people don't, either by dressing as a hamster and smoking a pipe or playing her Tumblr feminist parody character, Raven Moon Dragon. It takes the edge off a touchy subject and makes her video more accessable. The Genderratic blog is a lot more serious and the lion's share of the writing seems to be done by Typhon's co-authors, Ginkgo and Xakudo. They do a good job and go so far as to call out misogyny where they see it, so it's worth checking out. They were kind enough to add me to their blogroll.
So, with the special thanks out of the way, it's time to move on to the subject of this blog: Anita Sarkeesian's making her return! Or that seems to be the case, at least.
After months of silence on the series' progress and a few updates for her backers' eyes only, Anita finally appears to be making some headway on her Tropes vs Women in Video Games project. Earlier this week, Anita set up a Tumblr account titled "Bits of Tropes vs Women in Video Games". She seems to be using it to store her findings of distressed damsels ... and it's everything we predicted it would be.
Let's start with the biased findings. Without Anita's video, we can't say whether or not she's considering male "damsels" but it certainly seems like she will, judging from the September update for her backers:
|Image cropped. Shame more of Anita's backers-only updates weren't leaked.|
However, nothing in the "Bits of Tropes vs Women in Video Games" Tumblr suggests that men are going to be focused upon. Maybe they'll be added later. Maybe they won't be added at all and Anita is limiting the Tumblr to just female examples. We don't know at this point and I don't really like to speculate; I'm very tempted to assume the worst and say that men will be added as afterthoughts in Anita's Damsels In Distress video but that could lead to me eating my words when the video is released. So let's just say that these are my first impressions and what I hope Anita will end up putting in the video.
Let's start with the obvious stuff; examples of damsels in video games where male characters are in distress too. Ashley Graham from Resident Evil 4, for example. I know people were irritated by having an escort mission at the centre of RE4 (although it never bothered me) and she's undoubtedly a damsel in distress. So I wonder if Luis Sera will make Anita's list too. For those who've never played Resident Evil 4, Luis was a character who was tied up in a closet the first time he appeared. He's quickly freed, then is tied up again within five minutes by one of the villains.
Of course, Ashley could get a pass because she's helpless for the majority of the game while Luis gets to defend himself with a gun from time to time. Ashley is often forced to hide (or can be commanded to) in order to stay safe. Okay, let's say that's fair enough. There are other odd choices on the list too though. I'd like to single out Princess Yuki from one of my favourite series', Onimusha. If you can find the trilogy on the PS2, I highly recommend you buy it.
Onimusha's story revolves around the hero, Samanosuke, rescuing Princess Yuki from a horde of demons. It's simple enough but, as you can see in the picture above, Princess Yuki isn't the only one being held captive. Her younger brother, Yumemaru, is also taken prisoner after an ill thought-out attempt to save his sister.
Now, in my opinion, child characters shouldn't really be held to the same standards as adult characters; there's a good reason why children can't defend themselves, after all, that can't be said for adults. They're children. If faced with evil characters, you expect them to be overpowered. Anita seems to disagree:
To me, being a child in distress trumps being a damsel in distress. Children can't defend themselves because they're children; presumably, the reason Anita is compiling a database of damsels in distress is so she can say "look how prevalent these characters are. We need to have fewer of them and more women in stronger roles". If you include children in that, does that mean you want more children in stronger roles? The problem with that is the number of games set in realistic settings where it wouldn't be appropriate. Even in some games set in unrealistic settings, like Dishonored, it would be too unbelievable (although who knows? Maybe a sequel will feature child assassins). Video games can get away with imaginative scenarios much more easily than movies and television shows can and they have featured plenty of tough child characters -- young mages in Japanese RPGs, for example -- but let's be realistic; children are, and should be, damsels in distress more often than they should be heroes.
Plus, let's not forget that Dishonored featured several cases of male "damsels" in distress; Teague Martin in the first mission and the crime boss, Slackjaw, later in the game. It also occurred to me last night that the player character, Corvo, is a damsel in distress himself at the very start of the game, being imprisoned and subjected to torture with a hot iron. He only escapes with the help of the Loyalists.
Maybe we need some clarification on what does and doesn't constitute a damsel in distress; "damsel" implies helplessness and "distress" implies danger. Again, Ashley Graham would qualify but Luis would only fit the "damsel" part very briefly. Both Princess Yuki and Yumemaru would qualify. Samanosuke wouldn't when he's held captive ... but earlier in the game, there's a moment that every Onimusha player remembers and refers to as the water puzzle, where Samanosuke is stuck in a room with rising water and the player, as Kaede, has to solve a fiendishly difficult sliding-block puzzle within a time limit to free him. He'd qualify then.
Dishonored is where things get tricky; Emily could be described as being in danger at the very end of one ending. Teague Martin is in a similar situation; he's locked up and threatened but in no immediate danger. Slackjaw, on the other hand, is about to be killed and eaten. I've already mentioned Corvo being tortured too. It's even possible to attempt to torture one of the villains by filling his cell with plague-infested rats.
... Wait, why is it always male characters who are tortured? That's worth looking into ...
It might seem like I'm cherry-picking examples from the Tumblr but that's not the case at all; I just don't have the luxury of being able to play all of the games listed, thanks to a lack of both time and money. Even some of the games I own on the list are ones I haven't played in a while, such as Tenchu, so I can't comment on them. I noticed a few trends though.
I know Anita's a fan of TV Tropes, as am I, so it's worth mentioning a phrase that is often mentioned over there; "Tropes Are Not Bad". It's basically their way of saying that just because something is noteworthy enough to be listed as a trope, it doesn't mean that aspiring writers shouldn't use that trope in their stories for fear of them being clichéd or stereotypical. In the case of the damsel in distress, that's a trope that was used long before video games had writers, or at least writing as a main focus, and it was used as an excuse to put the main character on an adventure. For example, as thrilled as I was to see Chuck Rock make an appearance on the Tumblr, his wife Ophelia being kidnapped was simply an excuse to have Chuck fight dinosaurs for the next thirty minutes, or however long the game took to complete. The same goes for Double Dragon and numerous others.
Should these games be held to a different standard, just because they're old? Well, I'm not saying that but it's important to recognise that storytelling wasn't as important then as it is today and gameplay was everything. Going back to Tropes Are Not Bad, the damsel in distress trope in games from twenty years ago gave the player an objective, a reason why their character was fighting enemies rather than just for the sake of it.
It'd do the games listed a disservice if it wasn't mentioned that so many of them have gone to great lengths to eliminate damsels in distress from their games. Take Crash Bandicoot as an example. Tawna, Crash's girlfriend from the first game, is featured on Anita's Tumblr and it's also a classic case of primitive storytelling. The second game featured vastly superior writing, got rid of Tawna and added Crash's brainy little sister Coco to the roster too. In the third game, Coco became a playable character. Even Resident Evil has come along in leaps and bounds since Resident Evil 4, adding female co-op companions in 5 and 6 in place of Ashley Graham.
Speaking of which, I have a question: does having a damsel in distress in a game somehow negate the strong female characters? If Ashley Graham is a strike against the Resident Evil series, shouldn't Jill Valentine, Claire Redfield, Ada Wong and Rebecca Chambers all work in its favour? Isn't there some leeway given to games that have a good record for female characters? Because the problem with the way Anita is framing this trope -- and all the tropes she intends to talk about -- is "damsels in distress = bad". That's a problem. It's an attitude that limits creativity and reduces the number of elements writers are allowed to use.
I want to stress again that these are just my first impressions. So we'll wait and see what Anita actually delivers in her first video and I'll have more to say on the subject then. The Tumblr is a good sign that the video is on its way so we might not have long to wait
As always, feel free to leave a comment below or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oh, great. I was just about to finish the blog when I noticed that the pictures on the "Bits of Tropes vs Women in Video Games" Tumblr have tags! And some of them are very interesting. I'll try to make this quick.
Let's start with Dishonored, since I've been writing about that for most of this blog. One of the tags is "womaninthefridge", which refers to the Empress, who is killed at the beginning of the game.
For those of you who don't know, being "stuffed in the fridge" is a comic book term for when a woman is killed off to create drama for a male character. That doesn't actually apply to Dishonored, so the tag is incorrect; Corvo is a mute character, so he doesn't mourn, rage and even relies on others to plot his revenge for him. If anything, the Empress' death creates drama for her daughter, Emily, and maybe the city of Dunwall itself; the Empress is revered and Dunwall's citizens wonder how on earth they'll get by without her. The only drama that comes Corvo's way is being falsely imprisoned and tortured. He's suffering just as much as the Empress, in other words.
Also, Dishonored is a game all about assassination and the Empress receives a lot more attention after her death than any of the assassination targets in the game. Most of the time, Corvo returns from a successful mission only to be told, "great! Here's your next target." I'm paraphrasing but that's more or less the case. Incidentally, all but one of the assassination targets are male.
Let's move on to other games. The Timesplitters 2 pictures feature "sexualassault" as a tag, in spite of the fact that the Maiden characters -- the damsels in those pictures -- are a reference to the classic horror movie practice of occult artists sacrificing virgins for rituals. I've criticised people for complaining about sexual assault in games where there isn't any before -- Tomb Raider and Heavy Rain -- but this may be the most ridiculous example. Having the Maidens subjected to sexual assault would defeat the entire reason those characters exist! Their virginity. That's why Jacque de la Morte is saying "so pure" in that first picture.
Timesplitters 2 also offers a great example of how the damsel in distress trope can be used wonderfully. Freeing five Maidens from their shackles is an objective of the Notre Dame level ... but one of the Maidens is actually a monster called the Changeling that first-time players will probably unshackle by accident and be attacked by because they're so keen to complete the objectives. It was a clever addition and one that wouldn't exist without damsels in distress in Timesplitters 2. However, that doesn't seem to matter to Anita or one of her team operating the Tumblr; they're damsels in distress, ergo, they're bad.
Then there's Medievil 2 and the "damselinthefridge" tag.
To people who haven't played Medievil 2, this picture and tag is actually very misleading. While Kiya, the blue mummy pictured above and Sir Daniel Fortesque's love interest in Medievil 2, does die in the game, she's revived again within a few levels (well, she technically never died; using time travel, Sir Dan kills the monster who murdered her before she's murdered). Looking at the picture and tag, you would get the impression that she dies and that's all we see of her for the rest of the game. That's not the case. She dies in order to add a few extra levels to the game while Sir Dan works to save her.
There are probably lots more examples of misleading tags and I hope other people point out a few. We're discovering an inkling of the Tropes Vs Women in Video Games team seeing what they want to see though, rather than reporting examples accurately. They even take Duke Nukem 3D seriously ...