Thursday 30 May 2013

Damsel in Distress: Part 2 - Tropes vs Women in Video Games

Anita's back again, with the second part of her three-part series on the damsel in distress. Let's jump right back into it. Since this video deals with the deaths of characters, there will be spoilers throughout this blog post, mostly for older games but for some as recent as Bioshock Infinite. So read at your own peril.

I'm not a fan of Anita Sarkeesian. That should go without saying. Without going too deeply into why, let's just say that it's been a rocky road for Anita over the last year. She made a few too many questionable decisions for me to trust that her video series would be anything but one-sided. To my surprise, her latest video -- part two of three in her damsels in distress series, focusing mainly on damsels in distress who are killed, sometimes by the main character -- was one that I didn't find completely disagreeable. She hasn't won me over. I'm not convinced that Anita is a force for good in gaming and the negatives continue to outweigh the positives. What I am convinced of is that, when it comes to gender stereotypes, her heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, other points put forward by Anita are so biased and outright contradictory at times that having her heart in the right place doesn't help her case in the slightest.

Let's keep it positive though. I'll try not to quote Anita too much this time around and just give some basic summaries but at this point, I'd like to. Talking about male video game characters who lose their wives and daughters -- Max Payne and God Of War's Kratos are the two examples used -- Anita puts forward the idea that the reason these characters go on their roaring rampages of revenge is not because they're trying to avenge the loss of their wives and daughters, whom they loved very much.
"I’d argue that the true source of the pain stems from feelings of weakness and/or guilt over his failure to perform his “socially prescribed” patriarchal duty to protect his women and children.

In this way these failed-hero stories are really about the perceived loss of masculinity, and then the quest to regain that masculinity, primarily by exerting dominance and control, through the performance of violence on others.

Consequently violent revenge based narratives, repeated ad nauseum, can also be harmful to men because they help further limit the possible responses men are allowed to have when faced with death or tragedy. This is unfortunate because interactive media has the potential to be a brilliant medium for people of all genders to explore difficult or painful subjects."
That last paragraph is the important one. The one that I have plenty of praise for. Anita takes note of the fact that male gender roles are very limiting; aggression, dominance, protectiveness, chivalry, resourcefulness ... it's a risk for men to step out certain gender roles and can be frustrating for the ones who don't feel that they can.

One of the problems, however, is that Anita only seems to be stating this because she believes it supports her idea about women being objects rather than fully-rounded people that the protagonist cares about. They're property to get angry about being "taken" from them rather than people to miss. I don't think one guarantees the other. If I also might state the obvious for a moment, another problem is that these are video games. Revenge stories tend to work far better for gameplay purposes than stories about mourning and how to deal with loss. Max Payne and God Of War are based on film noir and violent Greek revenge-stroke-tragedy myths; not the kind of genres that have the heroes reaching for boxes of tissues. At the end of her video, Anita gives a few examples of games that she believes handle the subject of death in games more maturely (specifically Dear Esther, The Passage and To The Moon). Not that I hold anything against these games for doing that but they're not likely to become the standard. I adored To The Moon but haven't touched it ever since I completed it and I'm more likely to play Max Payne before I go near it again.

I'll come back to this later on but there's a much more significant reason why my goodwill towards Anita over acknowledging this hurtful gender stereotype didn't last. The big chunk of the video revolved around what Anita described as "the Euthanised Damsel". This is what happens in a game where a hero manages to catch up to a person he/she has been searching for -- usually a damsel in distress, as the name indicates -- only to find them begging the hero to kill him/her. Perhaps they've been turned into a monster or altered in some other way by the bad guys and they don't wish to live anymore. They'll beg for their rescuer to kill them and the rescuer will respect their wishes. That's the Euthanised Damsel in a nutshell.

The problem is that, while I don't want to say Anita was moving the goalposts at any time, it was a very large pool she was drawing from, based on a varied list of criteria. At one point, it was just women who were beyond saving. Then it was love interests who were too far gone and had to be killed. Then it was family members, mostly mothers. Then it was love interests who didn't have to be killed but did have to be fought to break them out of whatever spell or ailment it was that made them attack the heroes.

We have to wait for Anita's next video to hear her talk about male examples but I have a tendency to pick out a few male analogues to Anita's accusations while she's discussing them. Each time the Euthanised Damsel definition was expanded, there were a few examples that immediately sprang to mind, be they characters like Sinclair in Bioshock 2, Jecht from Final Fantasy X, Steve's father from Resident Evil: Code Veronica and plenty who only had to be attacked, rather than killed, such as Leon in Resident Evil 4 and Baralai in Final Fantasy X-2.

However, there were very few examples I could come up with featuring a male love interest being killed by a female hero. That's partly because, as Anita points out, there are so few female protagonists but even fewer with male love interests. This is slightly off-topic but I think the inclination to place female protagonists in the "strong, independent woman" archetype is a reason why male love interests aren't often featured; perhaps the belief that the heroine is motivated by a man betrays the "independent" part of that archetype. On-topic, however, I read a suggestion on a Youtube video that made me think that a woman euthanising a male "damsel" isn't the real analogue to men euthanising a female one. No, the real analogue is male heroes who die to save their damsels in distress; just like the female characters Anita brings up who request death rather than live as an abomination, male characters are often expected to have no thought for their own safety as long as the female characters are okay.

Capcom is very fond of doing this. In Onimusha 2, one of the story branches features Kotaro sacrificing himself to save Oyu, a woman who he has been largely antagonistic towards for most of the game. In Devil May Cry 4 -- which Anita brought up to point out the damsel in distress, in spite of the fact the game also features Nero being captured -- has Credo betraying his religious order in an attempt to save his sister, Kyrie, and it costs him his life. In Resident Evil: Code Veronica again, Steve is turned into an invincible monster at the end of the game but manages to fight off the transformation, his love for Claire Redfield is so strong. He dies shortly afterwards. This one is quite close to the love interest being killed by the heroine, in that Steve was a "damsel" moments earlier but he dies because his body can't take the transformation rather than because Claire pulled the trigger herself.

Then there's the huge sacrifice made by the hero of Shadow Of The Colossus (although he doesn't die). In Bioshock 2, the hero, Subject Delta, dies regardless of the ending the player receives, while the young woman he set out to save, Eleanor Lamb, lives on. Bioshock Infinite features a similar story, with many different incarnations of Elizabeth drowning her father, Booker DeWitt (who accepts his death willingly), so he doesn't go on to become the game's villain and kidnap her in the first place. That probably sounds confusing if you haven't played Bioshock Infinite and trust me, it's hard enough to understand even if you have.

One of the flaws in Anita's argument is also making the assumption that developers only use the Euthanised Damsel when they wish to shock people. I find that hard to believe. While there are doubtless examples that do exist just to be edgy, it seems like Anita isn't willing to consider the possibility that the writers wanted to create a tragic storyline. Or a storyline with a twist. I can't help but think Anita came to the conclusion that being edgy was the reason why the Euthanised Damsel existed before she looked at her many examples and then just found a way to make them fit her viewpoint.

Those are my thoughts on the "main" portion of Anita's video but in spite of my criticisms, I don't see much of a problem with Anita's dislike of the "Euthanised Damsel". Unlike her first video, Anita isn't as judgemental. There isn't any demonising of Shigeru Miyamoto, for one thing. The attitude is still there though; Anita explains why she dislikes the Euthanised Damsel -- and don't get me wrong, I completely understand why -- but I'm not really given a reason why I should care beyond conjecture and guesswork. The Jack Thompson parallels are still there, this time with regards to domestic violence. More on that later.

That's the important thing -- and, more to the point, the reason I can't get behind Anita as a force for good in gaming -- Anita states, "one of the really insidious things about systemic & institutional sexism is that most often regressive attitudes and harmful gender stereotypes are perpetuated and maintained unintentionally". Unfortunately, Anita herself had already reinforced and condoned harmful gender stereotypes herself at this point. Long story short, she talked at length about domestic violence but her definition followed the Duluth model.

If you know about domestic violence, that should say it all. For those of you who don't, however, the Duluth model is the assumption that domestic violence is "patriarchal"; domestic violence is an act done by men against women and children. If you've been following me for a long time, you'll know that hearing statistics about male victims of domestic violence on television was what interested me in men's rights in the first place. So domestic violence against men is a very prickly subject for me and I do not appreciate having male victims dismissed with gendered language in sentences like "people of all genders tend to buy into the myth that women are the ones to blame for the violence men perpetrate against them". Aside from ignoring male victims and female abusers, it also ignores violence in same-sex couples and doesn't acknowledge reciprocal violence. It is not a healthy, intelligent or accurate image of domestic violence to promote.

Aside from this major problem with Anita's argument, I find her videos peppered with smaller ones too. While Anita's latest video didn't have me shouting curses at my monitor, I did find myself sighing and shaking my head a lot. Her heart may be in the right place -- albeit deep, deep down -- but her solutions are impractical, biased and based on questionable logic and outright contradictory statements. For example, she criticises and dismisses Devil May Cry 4 (and others) for being a "crude, unsophisticated male power fantasy" but also does the same for Ico with "the most decidedly patronizing examples depictions of female vulnerability are used for an easy way for writers to trigger an emotional reaction in male players". That, in particular, made me cringe. Some time ago, Anita removed her video on Bayonetta from her channel because she thought she came across badly in it -- she shrugged off the story and dumbed it down to make it seem insignificant -- and as far as I'm concerned, she's doing the exact same thing with Ico here, with regards to the main gameplay element. You've probably already noted, as I did, Anita's inability to consider that perhaps female players could feel emotionally attached to the characters in Ico.

At one point, Anita repeats the same sentence over and over, wanting to get a point across about a trend: "In [game] your wife is brutally murdered and you then have to rescue your daughter." She seems to believe that the trend of daughters being captured is disempowering to women but apparently doesn't consider the possibility that the reason daughters are so frequently kidnapped instead of sons (and possibly husbands too) is because female characters are automatically more sympathetic than male ones, simply because they're female. Games like Heavy Rain, featuring a kidnapped son, are very rare. We feel more for Max Payne and Kratos because they lost daughters, not sons. In Bioshock 1 and 2, the reason for Little Sisters rather than Little Brothers was because it would be more difficult -- and morally questionable -- for the player to sacrifice little girls rather than little boys. In Bioshock 2 and Infinite, the protagonist's main mission is to find mistreated female characters, not male ones. It's the same principle behind "missing white woman syndrome", where the media is more willing to spotlight missing people if they're middle- or upper-class white women than if they're, say, a poor black male.

While it might seem like a good idea for Anita to decide against including violence against women who are treated as equals -- female soldiers and fighting game characters, for example -- there are a number of reasons why it carries some unfortunate implications for men. Back in February, I wrote about the sexism in Heavy Rain, comparing and contrasting two death scenes in particular; one of playable character Madison Paige, having a drill used on her genitals and one of Leland White, the villain of "The Taxidermist" DLC story, who has a chainsaw used on his. White's death is much more violent than Madison's, showing the genital mutilation in full, gory detail while Madison's is treated with more sensitivity; instead of showing the death, the camera cuts to the outside of the house and we hear a scream. The problem is that under Anita's definition, White's death is actually more acceptable than Madison's because he's not a damsel in distress at the time. The grisly nature of his death becomes irrelevant because he still has his agency. While Anita may believe helplessness is required for her definition of "violence against women", I'm afraid that I don't.

Time and again, we're asked to trust in Anita's word only because we're supposed to. We're told to believe the Euthanised Damsel is done for the sake of being edgy, just because that's what Anita thinks is the reason for it. We're told to see the damsels as objects instead of people, since that's the conclusion Anita has come to. While she points out that playing the games she features will not "magically transform players into raging sexists", she also says "media narratives do have a powerful cultivation effect helping to shape cultural attitudes and opinions". There's no explanation why she thinks video games/the trend of damsels and Euthanised Damsels contribute to these cultural attitudes though and that is when we get back into Jack Thompson territory.

This is becoming longer than I intended but I didn't want to leave anything out, so I'll wrap it up. Even without Anita's stance on domestic violence, I wouldn't be able to accept this video. There are just too many little details, too many conclusions drawn from questionable logic for me to support it. That's a shame and I genuinely mean that because, not enjoying depictions of violence against men, I can sympathise with the fact that she is so strongly against the idea of the Euthanised Damsel. However, when Anita says something like "violence against women is a serious global epidemic; therefore, attempts to address the issue in fictional contexts demands a considerable degree of respect, subtlety and nuance", she doesn't seem to realise that she's demanding special treatment. I agree that violence against women deserves to be treated respectfully but she's reading too much into a few too many situations; for example, I'm not sure how many people compare the hero having to kill his fused-with-a-monstrous-alien girlfriend when she asks him to do so in Prey with domestic violence.

Finally, it has to be said ... these are video games. As it happens, there are many important real-life issues that aren't treated with subtlety and nuance. War, for example, has been glamorised ever since Wolfenstein. To ask that all game developers consider how they treat the deaths of soldiers, however, isn't practical for video games. When all is said and done, I could be the most ardent anti-war protestor on the planet but not have any say in what developers should be doing with their own games. The final say is theirs, and rightfully so. The same goes for Anita and her feeling about violence against women in games. That's about all there is to say about it.


If you only care about video games, you can stop reading now. This is where I put my investigative hat on and check out the resources Anita used for her video.

Anita posted the list of resources she used for this video on the Feminist Frequency site and they are very telling. Anita's sole resource for the idea that game developers must feature the deaths of women to be "edgy" is this blog post and video. If she actually believes the statement Daria makes in the video then she's actually being more judgmental than I gave her credit for earlier.

While I can't find anything that goes against the claim that "every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in the United States and on average more than three women are murdered by their boyfriends husbands, or ex-partners every single day", the Every 9 Seconds website states "there are over 4700 U.S. women incarcerated for defending their lives". Let's just say that the founders of Every 9 Seconds may be playing fast and loose with their definition of the term "defending their lives"; I live in the UK but if any of you have been following the trial of Jodi Arias over there in the US, you may know that she claimed she was acting in self-defence and was a victim of domestic violence. Having followed a few cases of women on trial for murder or wounding charges over the years, Arias certainly isn't the first to make this claim.

One of the other resources Anita posts a link to is for the Wellspring Alliance, which looks fine. In fact, on their FAQ page, they mention that they take everyone, "regardless of race, color, national original, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age". Likewise, on the page linked to on Feminist Frequency's website, they state "Men are also victims of domestic violence, as are couples in same-sex relationships". Apparently, Anita decided to ignore that part when she talked about domestic violence herself.

The resource I'd like to focus on the most is "The normalization of violence in heterosexual romantic relationships: Women's narratives of love and violence" by Julia T. Wood. It's from looking at this study that Anita comes to the following conclusion, which she states in her video:
"Research consistently shows that people of all genders tend to buy into the myth that women are the ones to blame for the violence men perpetrate against them. In the same vein, abusive men consistently state that their female targets “deserved it”, “wanted it” or were “asking for it”."
Looking at the study itself, that is not what was said. First of all, this is a single study, with twenty heterosexual women who used to be in abusive relationships. "Consistently" and "people of all genders" are completely misleading. Nothing of the sort is written about this in Wood's research. Secondly, abusive men are not shown to have stated that their female targets "deserved it", "were asking for it" or anything similar. When these phrases come up in Wood's study, they're actually used as reasons why the female abuse victims stayed in abusive relationships:
"The women in this study described their partners' violence against them as understandable at the time it occurred. They justified it using a variety of reasons: 'I deserved it,' 'He didn't really mean it,' 'He was drinking,' 'It could have been worse,' and so forth."
It's very unpleasant, yes, but this isn't what Anita said. She made a claim about how "people of all genders" view abuse that research "consistently" shows but none of the sources provided on confirm Anita's claim. I don't know if Anita or her team at Feminist Frequency can provide sources that back up her claim but this, at least, is an outright fabrication.