Saturday 9 March 2013

Damsels In Distress: Part 1 - Feminist Frequency Returns

Anita Sarkeesian posted the first video of her Tropes Versus Women in Games project, so let's get right to it:

A transcript is also available at the Feminist Frequency site. This video deals with damsels in distress in games that were released pre-2000 (with the exception of Star Fox Adventures). Part two will highlight examples up to the present-day.

I don't have as much to say about the video as I thought I would, partly because I've gone over some of her arguments before but also because I was never a Nintendo owner. I had an Amiga and then a Playstation when I was young. I did own an N64 but my Playstation was always my priority when it came to owning games. So I can't leap to the defence of Mario and Zelda -- Anita's two staples of this video -- as much as some others can and, obviously, I don't have $158,000 at my disposable to invest in the games Anita has. I'll do my best anyway.

First of all, Anita does seem to be making an effort to be more professional than she used to be. She goes into historical examples of the damsel in distress, from Perseus to the pulp magazines of the early-to-mid-1900's. It seems to be an attempt to give the video some gravitas and her argument more weight but personally, I thought it did more to hurt the argument; it shows how ingrained the damsel in distress plot device is in our society and how unlikely it is to change because of Anita's criticism.

Let's start with Anita's critique of the writing in these games. The impression I got from the video was that Anita shows either an unwillingness or inability to understand the time period she's discussing; she refers to the hero rescuing the damsel in distress as an "excuse plot" and "lazy justification". Some of my regular readers will recall that I've actually been over this before: 
"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 ...
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."
Back then, I also said, "let's just say that these are my first impressions and what I hope Anita will end up putting in the video". She did, as it turns out. So these games did have excuse plots, as Anita says, but it was intentional because gameplay was the priority. There was never an issue with how women were portrayed either because they were unlikely to be scrutinised by mainstream critics without good cause, like the violence in Mortal Kombat.

I can't help but wonder if Anita will acknowledge the ways that games have improved. Annoyingly, I've written about this before too:
"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."
I don't wish to brag but I do seem to have a good handle on Anita's presentation. Sure enough, the damsels in distress video did feature brief clips of both Tawna from Crash Bandicoot and Ashley Graham. I think we'll have to wait until next time to hear more about Ashley though.

The one game that I want to focus on that Anita did mention, however, was Prince Of Persia. She criticised both the original 1989 game (which I owned on the Amiga) and the 3D remake on modern consoles for featuring the Sultan's Daughter as a damsel in distress. I can't help but wonder if she'll include the Sands Of Time series and the reboot. Can we expect to see the strong Farah, Kaileena and Elika being praised or does the damsel in distress of the original game overshadow those three? We'll probably have to wait until Anita's "good female characters" video(s).

Prince Of Persia comes up again later but before I get to that, I want to write a little about Dinosaur Planet, a game Anita discusses at the start of the video. As she describes it:
"The game was to star a 16 year old hero named Krystal as one of the two playable protagonists. She was tasked with traveling through time, fighting prehistoric monsters with her magical staff and saving the world. She was strong, she was capable and she was heroic."
Dinosaur Planet would go on to become Star Fox Adventures, the third game in the Star Fox series, and Krystal would go from being the heroine to being the damsel in distress. I can see how it would be frustrating to have a (possibly) strong female character taken away from you like that. However, I'd like to compare Anita's reaction to Krystal to her reaction to Super Mario Bros. 2, where Princess Peach was a playable character for the first time.

There are probably some people reading this, particularly Mario fans, who know that the version of Super Mario Bros. 2 released outside of Japan was actually a game called Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic that was given an overhaul and turned into a Super Mario game for the West. The original characters were changed to Mario characters instead. Take a look at what Anita has to say about it: 
"However the Japanese game already had 4 playable characters, so the designers opted to include Toad and the Princess to fill the two remaining slots, building directly on top of the older pre-existing character models. So really, if we’re honest, Peach is kinda, accidently playable in this one.
Still, she had the awesome ability to float for short distances, which came in really handy especially in the ice levels."
So Anita praises Peach's abilities in this game but dismisses her because she's "kinda accidentally playable in this one", as it wasn't originally a Mario game.

Hold on though, couldn't you say the same thing about Krystal in Star Fox Adventures? She's "kinda accidentally a damsel in distress" because it wasn't originally a Star Fox game? After all, Dinosaur Planet was another game that was revamped into a different one with more name value. So shouldn't that one not count -- or not be as bad an offender -- because it was originally a different game entirely?

I don't think so. I think the logical thing to do would be to dislike Star Fox Adventures more and consider Krystal a worse example of a damsel in distress but be more grateful that Super Mario Bros. 2 made Princess Peach a tough and fun female character to play as. For some reason, however, Anita seems determined for Peach to maintain her status as a damsel in distress; even without the Super Mario Bros. 2 example, Anita dismisses her appearances in the Smash Bros. series because they're spin-offs. "Outside the core Super Mario titles", as she states. I don't understand why Anita does this. She practically begs for fewer damsels in distress but comes up with rather superficial reasons to dismiss the characters when they're taking action. Remember the no-win situation I wrote about last time? It's still there.

One thing that Anita doesn't seem to realise about Princess Peach that even I, as a non-Mario player, understand is that she established many of the tropes for damsels in distress -- in video games, at least -- and therefore being a damsel in distress is expected of her. Anita is a fan of TV Tropes, isn't she? So how has she never heard of the "Trope Codifier"? Someone (or something) that embodies many of the traits and characteristics of a particular trope. In this case, the damsel in distress. Yet in spite of Princess Peach actually being such a notable example, Anita would like her (and Zelda) to take on a role as an action star in her own right.

I know that doesn't sound so bad -- more strong female playable characters is a good thing, isn't it? -- but why Peach in particular? Why such a notable example of a damsel in distress? Why not create a character specifically for that purpose, like Lara Croft, Alyx Vance, etc, etc. than reappropriate Princess Peach?

Well, as I wrote in my quote above, the way Anita is framing this trope is "damsels in distress = bad". They have no place in Anita's ideal view of gaming. Personally, I disagree with this. I believe there's a place for damsels in distress -- both male and female -- in gaming and to want to eliminate it as a plot device entirely is a desire to clip the wings of creativity.

One final thing I'd like to point out about this first video is, of course, the treatment of men. When talking about Double Dragon at the end of the video, Anita says:
"The now iconic opening seconds of the 1987 beat-em up arcade game Double Dragon has Marian being punched in the stomach, throwen [sic] over the shoulder of a thug and carried away. In several versions her panties are clearly shown to the player while being abducted.
The game has been remade, re-released and ported to dozens of systems over the last 25 years, ensuring that Marian will continue to be battered and damseled for each new generation to enjoy. Most recently Double Dragon Neon in 2012 re-introduced new gamers to this repressive crap yet again, this time is full HD."
The problem is that earlier on in the video, Anita shows clips of several men who are captured at certain points during the game. I know she wrote to her Kickstarter backers that the "dude in distress" was something she wanted to cover in the damsel in distress videos but I sincerely hope that this wasn't it. We saw clips from Metal Gear Solid, the original Prince Of Persia, GoldenEye, The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Star Fox Adventures and Metal Gear. For one thing, all of the examples Anita gave from those games involved the main character, so it'd make for a poor game if the hero had to sit around and wait for someone else to rescue them (which actually was an option in Metal Gear Solid; the Cyborg Ninja would come to Snake's rescue if the player was unable to escape. Since I could never get the "ketchup as blood" or "hide under the bed" tricks to work, it was also the option I always took).

In short, if Anita doesn't mention "dude in distress" examples that even I have been able to come up with, questions will be asked. I'm confident that she will, possibly in a third video, but she'll attempt to come up with justifications for them in a way that she doesn't for damsels in distress.

Anyway, on the subject of men who are in captivity, Anita has this to say:
"Let’s compare the damsel to the archetypal Hero Myth, in which the typically male character may occasionally also be harmed, incapacitated or briefly imprisoned at some point during their journey.

In these situations, the character relies on their intelligence, cunning, and skill to engineer their own escape — or, you know, just punching a hole in the prison wall works too. [Metal Gear reference]
The point is they are ultimately able to gain back their own freedom. In fact, that process of overcoming the ordeal is an important step in the protagonist’s transformation into a hero figure.

A Damsel’ed woman on the other hand is shown to be incapable of escaping the predicament on her own and then must wait for a savior to come and do it for her."
There are three points to be made about this: firstly, because Anita is using examples of main characters and comparing them to women who aren't main characters, it's false equivalence. The two can't be compared because the developers of the six games listed above wanted their prison escapes to be playable sections in the game. It would be closer to compare something like being arrested in Grand Theft Auto; "inescapable of escaping the predicament on [his] own and then must wait for a savior to come and do it for [him]" (who usually wasn't seen but in GTA: Vice City, we occasionally heard Tommy Vercetti's lawyer, Ken Rosenberg, pleading Tommy's innocence whenever he was arrested). That's a closer comparison and that's still using a main character. For that matter, the Metal Gear Solid heroes all needed help escaping too. There was the aforementioned Cyborg Ninja in MGS1, Olga Gurlukovich releasing Raiden from the torture device in MGS2 and The Sorrow giving Snake the radio frequency to open the door to his cell in MGS3. They were all helped, or had the option to be helped.

The second point is the way Anita ignores female heroes who use their intelligence, cunning and skill to engineer their own escape. In my last blog post, I linked to a video of Rubi Malone from Wet escaping torture. Her escape happened a bit too suddenly for my liking but still, it happened. She shows no weakness or fear while being tortured either. Final Fantasy X's Yuna would qualify here too, while held captive in the Via Infinito. She starts alone but can meet up with other imprisoned party members along the way. In spite of their help against regular enemies, Yuna fights the boss of the area on her own and is more than capable of defeating him.

It's frustrating that all of my examples come from games that were released post-2000 (with the exception of Metal Gear Solid) but I'll treat it the same way I did before Anita posted the first video; these are just my first impressions, so let's wait and see if Anita actually delivers what I think she will.

The third point is simply this; if Anita takes issue with Marian being battered at the beginning of Double Dragon, how can she show Snake from Metal Gear Solid, who received much worse while he was in captivity and consider it less of an issue just because he escapes on his own? Is it because Marian is innocent while Snake is battle-hardened? I could see how that would make a difference if Snake simply received a punch in the stomach too but the severity of his torture was so much worse too. Sorry but if violence against fictional women is a serious enough issue that Anita feels the need to refer to it as "repressive crap", shouldn't the same weight be given to games where fictional men are victims of violence?

And by the way, these guys are villains! Since when has it been wrong to show villainous people doing villainous things? The game makes it clear that violence against women is discouraged and the people doing it have no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

I've spent a long time writing this and probably forgotten as much as I've written. There are a few things that I wanted to write that I've either just plain forgotten or that we have to wait until Anita's second video to find out. So I suppose that'll do for now. I would like to say that I wish Anita would stop using terms like "patriarchy" and "male power fantasy". To me, terms like those always mean the same thing: "I've finished thinking". Anita's examples have always come across as rather biased in my opinion, so the least that she could do to make them more palatable is to express them with plain English and not terms that plenty of people question anyway. Because then, all she's doing is backing up questionable research with more questionable research and wading through the first level of nonsense, such as patriarchy, to get to the second, the actual videos is something that can turn people off.

I also didn't mention much about the money she earned from the Kickstarter. Well, it doesn't look like it made much of a difference to the video quality. There's a snazzy new intro but that's about it. I was hoping the $158,000 was for more than the games and to live off but I guess that wasn't the case. Other people will have more to say on the money than me (such as this entertaining write-up, which is more informal than mine but also more entertaining) but I do have one question; what on Earth did she need the original $6,000 for?

The final thing I'll leave you with before I go is one of Anita's videos that I only got around to watching very recently, about Twilight. It's only 1:21 long. See if you find it as condescending towards men as I do:

She basically treats men like children. She claims that the guys she spotlighted wanted Edward to be "physically abusive", which was not the case. They actually said they wanted him to be "badass". She wants you to hate Twilight for the reasons she hates it and not the reason that you hate it. Different opinions apparently aren't welcome in Sarkeesia. Which is probably why she disables the comments.

According to gaming sites around the time of the Kickstarter, this is the woman we should've been supporting. We should've been decrying the sexism against women and supporting Anita's brand of sexism against men.

I wonder if there's more of that to come in future videos.