Saturday 3 August 2013

Damsel in Distress: Part 3 - Tropes Vs Women in Video Games

I've noticed a spike in viewers today because Dragon's Crown has been released. I'd like to get around to making another blog about that but, unfortunately, I live in Europe and our release date for the game is "Q3/Q4 2013". Amazon's estimate is October. Still, it's my birthday soon so I'll probably import it for that.

Of the three damsel in distress videos that Anita Sarkeesian has planned, this is the one I've been looking forward to the most. To me, this is the one that could make or break her arguments. As this is the video that concerns male damsels in distress -- or the "dude in distress" as she calls them -- how Anita treats this issue could be what sets the tone for the whole series.

At least to Anita's critics, this video could be the turning point. Maybe she'll try to justify the existence of male captives and attempt to dismiss it as an issue entirely. If that's the case, it's nothing particularly new and her critics have been justified in calling her arguments and examples cherry-picked and biased. On the other hand, maybe she'll treat male captives with the analytical eye they deserve; maybe she'll notice that they're not that different from female captives and perhaps she'll notice that men are tortured more often to create sympathy. If that's the case, maybe Anita can win over a few cynics. Maybe her videos won't be seen as a propaganda piece anymore and instead a more reasonable, if deeply flawed, analysis of sexism in video games for both men and women. When writing about part two of Anita's damsels in distress series, I stated, "when it comes to gender stereotypes, her heart is in the right place". That opinion has wavered a bit since then but who knows? Maybe Anita can come good at last and her silencing of others, her plagiarism of other people's videos and her misquoting of studies will just be stumbling blocks along the way.

I just hope that Anita has kept her own tweet in mind while making this video:

As of this writing, I haven't seen the video. So let's see what Anita has for us ...

Before I watched this video, I wanted Anita to say one of two things in this video; the first would be, "the dude in distress is a horrible, damaging trope because male damsels often have to go through torture and unsympathetic treatment that female damsels often don't". That's not quite my position -- I don't particularly mind damsels in distress if it makes sense in terms of the story but I do question why male characters have to be tortured to gain player sympathy -- but that would be something. The other thing I was hoping Anita might say would be, "I think having male damsels in distress is great because it's a deconstruction of gender roles and shows that the damsel plot device isn't gender-specific. It's a sensible and progressive attitude for developers to take regarding kidnapped characters".

Anita didn't take either of these stances on the subject. In fact, she didn't say much on it at all; only a third of the twenty-three-and-a-half minute video focused on the "dude in distress" and it was sharply dismissed with nothing more than a, "it's sexist when it's a woman. It's fine when it's a man". The rest of the video focused on more damsels in distress, with some focus on the use of "ironic sexism" in games.

So it looks like Anita has, in fact, chosen to be sexist by denying and dismissing the sexism against men that permeates our culture. You'd think she'd know better.

The funny thing is just how few games featuring "dudes in distress" Anita listed. She mentioned a grand total of six. I'd also like to point out that this was the first time I was made aware of the fact that, in Anita's eyes, the "distressed" character has to be the opposite sex of the hero character. Before now, I was operating under the assumption that the sex of the "damsel" was important but the sex of the hero was completely irrelevant. Even so, six games is still an incredibly small number to highlight. There was no mention of any of the games with male damsels listed in KiteTales' response to Anita's first video, all of which did feature female characters saving male ones. She didn't go into, say, Onimusha, a series that featured women saving men in all three games of the original trilogy. She didn't mention Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2, having to be released from his torture device by a woman. Oh, and she didn't bring up this blog's favourite go-to game for sexism; Heavenly Sword. It wasn't long after she mentioned these six games that she rattled off a lengthy list of indie and mobile games featuring damsels in distress, as if to lessen the significance of the six games featuring "dudes in distress" that she brought up.

Still, let's focus on Spelunky, a game that Anita focused on because she believed it highlighted the difference between the "dudes" and the "damsels". Here's a couple of points Anita made beforehand:
"First there’s been no shortage of men in leading or heroic roles in video games or in any other creative medium for that matter. In fact one recent study found that only about 4% of modern titles are exclusively designed around a woman in the leading role. Since men are still largely the default for protagonists, the rare dude in distress plotline does not add to any longstanding gendered tradition in storytelling."
It's worth mentioning that the 4% statistic doesn't mean the other 96% of modern titles are exclusively designed around a male leading character; that 96% includes sports games and games where your character's sex is optional, bear in mind.
"Second, and perhaps more importantly, damsel’ed female characters tend to reinforce pre-existing regressive notions about women as a group being weak or in need of protection because of their gender, while stories with the occasional helpless male character do NOT perpetuate anything negative about men as a group since there is no long-standing stereotype of men being weak or incapable because of their gender."
First of all, there's nothing to suggest that damseled female characters reinforce any stereotypes about women as a whole; individual damsels do not represent women as a whole. They're also not necessarily weak or in need of protection because of their gender (and I'd be surprised if there were any games out there that outright stated that). Those are both stigmas that Anita herself has attached to female damsels. Much like her declaration that damsels in distress are more like property than people, it's a conclusion that Anita has arrived at without evidence. The stereotype may exist but a damsel in distress doesn't perpetuate it simply by existing.

Anyway, Spelunky was singled-out by Anita because the 2012 HD remake of the game featured the ability to switch out the large-chested female damsel with a "Chippendales-style hunk" or even a dog. So it was the perfect game to focus on the differences between male and female damsels. In Anita's own words:
"Setting aside the fact that – if a female character is easily interchangeable with a dog then its probably a pretty good indication that something is wrong – Merely providing an optional gender-swap is not a quick and easy fix, especially where stock character style damsels are concerned.
The two may appear the same, but they don’t mean the same thing in our culture.  This [damsel] is still a problem while this [dude] is not. Again because one reinforces pre-existing stereotypes about women, while the other does not re-enforce any pre-existing stereotypes about men."
Anita's argument is "these types of token role reversals do absolutely nothing to diminish the issues inherent in using the trope in the first place" but this is nothing more than her opinion. If anything, I think the fact that a female character being interchangeable with a man or a dog is a good indication that the gender (or even species) of the damsel isn't an issue; it is an easy fix, in that the damsel isn't particularly relevant to the story, nor is her gender and the fact is that she can't reinforce a pre-existing regressive notion about women as a group if she doesn't necessarily have to be a woman.

Not to mention that the hero doesn't have to be male, something that Anita failed to mention; even in the original game, the player could unlock a mode to play as a damsel and save spelunkers, rather than the other way around. The HD remake added playable female characters too.

This is another case of creating an unwinnable situation for developers. Regardless of the effort put in by the developer to create a more progressive game -- removing the gender issue entirely by providing the option of female playable characters and male (and animal) damsels in distress -- it's dismissed for its progressiveness and derided for its perceived sexism; when talking about "ironic sexism", Anita had no problem stating:
"In Spelunky the damsel can be knocked out, picked up, carried around and thrown at enemies before rewarding the player with an extra heart via a smooch of victory (if you manage to get her limp unconscious body to the end of each level while still alive that is)."
However, doesn't this completely ignore the facts that Anita provided above? The damsel doesn't have to be female but Anita still uses the game as an example of "ironic sexism" (in this case, parodying the uselessness typically displayed by damsels in distress). Again, I have to ask why isn't the issue removed when the genders are switched? In fact, if Anita can hold up the female Spelunky damsel as an example of a character reinforcing stereotypes about being weak and incapable, couldn't I do the same for the male Spelunky damsel and say that being thrown at enemies is an example of male disposability and reinforces the fact that we don't care about men in games? Which wouldn't make any sense because the gender of both the protagonist and damsels can be picked by the player.

Putting aside all the specifics, I can't help but call this what it is; hypocrisy. An attempt to rid gaming of female damsels while coming up with flimsy justifications -- or excuses, more accurately -- to keep male ones. We have to go back to the tweet at the beginning of this blog post; she's denying and dismissing the sexism that permeates our culture. It's Anita wanting to have her cake and eat it too. To plant her flag on the moon of victimhood and claim it for womankind, if I may use a horrible metaphor.

While that might sound like a snarky and grandiose thing to accuse Anita of, here's a couple of examples that I think will clarify it; one of the six (six!) games that featured a male damsel was a game called Primal, featuring the female protagonist's boyfriend, Lewis, being kidnapped by evil forces. The protagonist, Jen, develops some powers and goes to get him back. That's a very simplified version of the game's events but it sums up the basics. What Anita didn't mention is that Lewis, in addition to being a damsel in distress, is also the final boss of the game, having been brainwashed (again, an oversimplification), and he dies shortly after his defeat. There's a hint that he could return after his death but, if the after-credits scene is anything to go by -- Jen reading to Lewis while he is comatose -- it isn't a certainty. There isn't any movement in Lewis to hint that he'll awaken.

My big problem with Anita's coverage of this is that, while there's a hint in her video that Lewis dies, there's no mention of him being the final boss. There's no mention of Jen being the one who kills him. Given that the meat of Anita's second damsels in distress video was about the implications of domestic violence when a male protagonist attacks his brainwashed (or otherwise coerced) girlfriend in a video game, mentioning these facts would be the minimum I'd expect her to do.

Also, it really does have to be said that the lack of focus on protagonists saving damsels of their own sex damages Anita's point; like I said earlier, up until this video I was under the impression that the sex of the damsel was the only important thing, rather than the sex of the damsel and the protagonist. I'm willing to wager that more men are in need of rescue in games starring male protagonists than in games starring female protagonists. Yes, I understand that's due to a lack of female protagonists -- and more varied protagonists is something I'm entirely in favour of -- but there's a plethora of male captives to be found in games with male protagonists and by refusing to include them, Anita isn't painting a complete picture. It makes the "dude in distress" out to be rarer than it actually is.

Even worse is one of the links Anita provided as a source on her website. It's a link to a PDF file called "Spelunky & Sexism", archived from a site called "How To Not Suck At Game Design". It brings up the option to switch sexes (and species) of the protagonist and damsels in Spelunky and states "this is very progressive and forward-thinking. Great concept". After that, it quickly goes downhill (excuse the few spelling and grammatical errors. They were present in the original source):
"But in a concrete manner, it makes everything even worse. Since saving is not an option, you get to choose not who to save, but who to exploit and abuse. Since we do not have as much problems in pop culture and society with abuse of men for being men, the buff guy is not that much problematic as a damsel style. It still is kinda ugly to witness, but at least it does not endorse common real-life abuse.

Animal abuse on the other hand is quite real, so smacking a dog around and using the dog as shuriken, maybe accidentally killing him, really does not feel any better, then doing it with another human being."
If you've read some of my previous posts, you might know that concern over domestic violence against men was the "main" issue that caused me to identify as a men's rights activist. To say that the paragraphs quoted above make me uncomfortable is an understatement. In fact, I don't think I've ever read anything quite as ignorant about gender issues in the many years I've followed video game websites. This is stating the obvious but domestic violence against men is also "quite real" -- without wanting to be especially preachy about the issue, hopefully this article can shine a small spotlight on an incredibly widespread issue -- and not only is the writer of the paragraphs not above treating the abuse of men as secondary to the abuse of women but also the abuse of dogs.

None of the scenarios outlined endorse any kind of abuse -- whether the damsel is a man, a woman or a dog -- but it's quite despicable that the writer treats male victims of abuse as non-existent. I would've thought it'd be worse that the abuse of men in popular culture wasn't considered an issue and that's why it should be criticised, rather than swept under the rug as "not that much problematic". Unfortunately, the writer of the paragraphs above takes an attitude of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" or "if the masses don't consider it an issue, I won't make it one". How a site can completely unironically be titled "How To Not Suck At Game Design" and then provide such a blatant double standard, I'll never know.

So both Anita and her sources are determined to dismiss the poor treatment of men to perpetuate the victimhood of women. Even so, this may be the first time I've been more irritated by Anita's sources than her videos. Having said that, in spite of the speech I've written above, there wasn't very much in Anita's videos to feel annoyed by. Oh, it was bad; if you thought Anita was judgmental of Shigeru Miyamoto, wait until you see how she treats indie developers. Although apart from that, the rest of the content was just there and aside from Spelunky, I'm mostly critical of what wasn't in Anita's videos rather than what was. So her sources bother me a lot; there aren't any misquoted studies this time around (as far as I'm aware) but a couple of the sites linked to are just complaints about Fat Princess.

Which leads us to the content that makes up the second two-thirds of the video and honestly, I don't have much to say about it. There are only three things I want to write about regarding Anita's commentary on "ironic sexism".

One. Personally, I've always thought that no topic should be off-limits for comedy. I hope I'm not the only one who wonders how Anita would react if she watched a controversial stand-up comedian. It's certainly within an indie developer's right to portray the damsel in distress -- or anyone else -- satirically. It doesn't have to fall within the bounds of Anita Sarkeesian's narrow view of satire; "There is a clear difference between sexist parody and parody of sexism. Sexist parody encourages the players to mock and trivialize gender issues while parody of sexism disrupts the status quo and undermines regressive gender conventions."

Some of the games listed certainly deconstructed and parodied the damsel in distress more than Anita gave them credit for but earned criticism because they didn't fit her definition of "parody". More on that in a second. This really is a case of "if you don't like it, don't play it" though. Satire is not Anita's to dictate and trying to do so just makes her seem entitled.

Two. When talking about indie games, Anita falls into the same traps as she did in her first episode when discussing retro games; rather than simply accepting that developers either don't have the time, the budget or just the wish to implement a deep storyline. Her accusations towards Super Meat Boy stand out in particular; she shows the game's intro sequence, which is an almost frame-for-frame remake of the the intro sequence from 1989's Adventures Of Lolo. Rather than accept it for the homage that it is, Anita brands it "a shallow meta-commentary" and criticises it for not "challenging or disrupting what the damsel in distress trope says about the role of women in such narratives".

... Who said the developer had to? Anita goes on to praise games such as Fez and Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP simply because they don't fit this mould. The problem here is that there's nothing wrong with Super Meat Boy paying homage to a retro game with its intro sequence but it still faces Anita's ire because ... it's not the retro quality she wants to see in a game. Again, this comes across as very entitled on her part. Rather than listing examples of games with damsels in distress, she's passing judgment based on preferences. This isn't the critical analysis that Anita claimed on her blog. It's closer to a soapbox or pulpit.

Three. This quote:
"The bad ending of the indie game Eversion (2008) features a similar joke; when the hero finally reaches the princess, she turns into a monster and eats you alive.
A similar end game punchline can also be found in Castle Crashers (2008). After you’ve saved the 4th princess, and then fought and killed your friends over who gets to claim her, it turns out that she has horrible clown face.
In each case the joke derives from the fact that after completing the long and perilous journey to save his woman, our hero is hilariously cheated out of his “rightful” reward."
When I watched the video for the first time, the exact thought that ran through my head was "okay, so the male hero is the butt of the joke; he gets eaten in one ending and in the other, he's deprived of any satisfaction when it turns out the princess has a clown face (and therefore has probably tricked the hero)". So how did Anita follow that up?
"In other words the comedy comes at the damsel’s expense."
 ... How? No, really, I mean how!? Only Anita Sarkeesian could see a princess eating a male hero as a sign that the damsel is being made fun of.

If I might go off on a tangent here, a few years ago I was watching any and all US comedy that I could to see if anything caught my attention. I became a fan of a few series that I'd never seen before, like Cheers and Scrubs, while some others fell by the wayside, like King Of Queens. One of the series that didn't make the cut was a sitcom called Just Shoot Me, starring David Spade. One episode featured Spade's character faced with the prospect of having a threesome with two women and as a result, he was able to persuade every male character he ran into that day to help him out because none of them wanted to ruin every man's dream (sarcasm) of being with two women at the same time. Here's the relevant part of the episode on Youtube. It ends with him being tricked, the two women who promised to have a threesome with him orchestrating an argument so they'd have an excuse to go back on the deal.

In this case, we're supposed to laugh at Spade's character. He's the butt of the joke. His sexuality and lack of sexual gratification is the butt of the joke. All the men who help him and appear at the end to applaud him are the butt of the joke too; they've all been fooled and we're meant to laugh at men for being so gullible.

The reason I'm writing all this about Just Shoot Me is because I heard a theory that Anita said "the comedy comes at the damsel's expense" because the damsel's value is supposedly lessened in the eyes of the male heroes because they turn out to be ugly (and therefore, not what the hero wants or expected). I couldn't disagree more; the damsels are no worse off than they were when the male protagonist thought they were just regular old princesses. The male protagonists, however, are David Spade's character in Just Shoot Me. They're the dorks and losers who don't get the reward they were hoping for and we're supposed to laugh at them for it. The damsels aren't devalued in any way. The damsels win.

The male protagonist is made to look stupid in these situations (or dead, in Eversion's case). While I see them as individual instances, the fact is that if Anita really is against "reinforcing pre-existing stereotypes", she really could do worse than starting with Castle Crashers. Given that Anita somehow manages to warp even that around to being offensive to women, however, that's obviously never going to happen.

Anyway, that brings this lengthy post to an end. I'd like to say that I won't watch another Feminist Frequency video but I think we all know that's a complete lie. Besides, with a brand new topic, the next time I write about a Feminist Frequency video, it'll seem more fresh. I really can't stress enough just how little of this video interested me. If anything, I was just disappointed that Anita acted so predictably, dismissing "dudes in distress" without much of a fanfare or even an interesting argument. If not for Spelunky, this blog would be much, much shorter. Again, we just have to look back on Anita's hypocritical tweet -- which I honestly did take a screenshot of before I ever saw the video -- and realise that the chances of her ever giving men's issues a fair hearing are zero.

Well, whatever. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail at