Sunday, May 12, 2013

Crescent's Thoughts On: The Damsel in Distress

To all mothers out there: Happy Mother's Day
Happy Mother's Day to all maternal gamers, and I know there has to be at least one in the world: My own Mom. In celebration for the appreciation of the fairer sex's perpetual struggle to ensure our species survival for an additional generation, I've decided to take a look at all the great mothers in video game history....... Okay, maybe not. To be honest, outside of the majority of the female cast in Fire Emblem Awakening, I can't think of that many mothers taking an active role in video games. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure they are there, but it does highlight an issue with the greater representation of characters in video games. So, in light of this I will look at one of the most divisive issues that has cropped up in recent video gaming news: Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games "Project."

The woman in question.
For those of you who don't know, about a year ago a self proclaimed Feminist Advocate by the name of Anita Sarkeesian of the Youtube channel Feminist Frequency started a Kickstarter funded project called "Tropes Vs Women in Video Games" where she asked for $6,000 and got close to $160,000 to fund a series of then 5 videos but now 13 video looking at female representation in games. As of writing this blog, the project has so far only produced a single video (which both ratings and comments are disabled) two months ago which is only the first part of her examination of the "Damsel in Distress" trope. The response to this video has ranged from questionable praise to complete apathy to extensive evisceration. There has been many response videos on Youtube because of this and they range from Thunderf00t using the same logic to come to a contradictory point in his Feminism Vs Facts video, Dangerousanalysis blowing holes in her apparently shallow research in his Feminist Frequency Debunked - Part 1 - The Foundations video, and even fellow female gamer KiteTales defending the two most prominent from such narrow stereotyping in her More than a Damsel in Distress: A Response video. Since so much has already been said, I will take a different route to my criticism to Anita's points; namely the "It's a Trope and thus it is Bad" mentality.

Wow, I didn't expect to find this.
So what is a Damsel in Distress other than a 1937 movie? Well, as we all know, a damsel in distress is a cliche where a female character is rendered helpless and requires another character (Male OR female) to rescue her. While we can talk about it's origins and it's use in other media, that is irrelevant to the topic, what is relevant is how it is used in video games, namely in the early days of the Arcade, NES, and even up to SNES. In these games the damsel in distress is used as a quick and easy way to explain the plot; namely, what is your goal, who is the villain, and your motivation for the quest. Sarkeesian's issue with this trope is that it renders female characters objects to the male hero's quest, robbing them of the ability to rescue themselves, and even going so far as stating that the only possible reason for the hero is so that he can make her his object, citing Princess Peach of the Mario series and Princess Zelda of... well the Zelda series as prime examples of this trope.

Reoccurring kidnapped victim.
The problem with Sarkeesian's analysis of this cliche is how shallowly she examines it. Really, her view can be summarized like this "She gets kidnapped, that's bad. She gets rescued by a man, that's even worse." But here is a thing with cliches, they become cliches because they WORK! As a simple story, the Damsel in Distress invokes a very deep rooted desire in everyone: the desire to protect especially to protect loved ones. This simple premise is willfully ignored by Sarkeesian, since her examination of the hero's motivation is reduced to only viewing the damsel as their "Property." This, however, isn't apparent in either the Mario series nor the Zelda series as the relationship between Mario and Peach and Link and Zelda is not demonstrated to be abusive in any regard. While the opening to many Mario games do show the princess being kidnapped in some fashion, they also show the kind of relationship between Mario and Peach. Is Peach slaving away in the kitchen while Mario is sitting on his couch eating Doritos? No. Instead we have them taking walks together, celebrating holidays, going on vacation. True, Peach did bake a cake for Mario, but it wasn't a demand from Mario to do so and given Paper Mario she apparently enjoys cooking. While the romantic implications of their relationship is as nonexistent as Luigi's fame, it is obvious that both Mario and Peach regard each other with respect, hell Rosalina even referred to Peach as Mario's "Special someone." Link and Zelda's relationship is harder to pin down given that we are dealing with different characters between several games; however, it is important to note that as the games developed so does the relationship between the two. Sometimes they are strangers, but they have also be very close childhood friends and they even held hands by the end of Spirit Tracks. I find it insulting to the characters of both Mario and Link that the only reason they would fight so long and hard for their respective princess is because they view them as an object.

An act of selfless devotion or a symbol of the objectification of women
Next is Sarkeesian's demand that women must be able to egress themselves from such situations instead of waiting for a man to save them. Well, this is all well and good in theory, but try to imagine a game where you are trying to save your kidnapped girlfriend and then at the end of the game when you reach the final boss you see that your girlfriend has already kicked the crap out of him and is standing triumphantly over his corpse. True, most gamers would kneel down right then and there and ask the girlfriend to marry them, but the gamer will also probably feel robbed. That all of their hard work would be for absolutely nothing because it didn't change a damn thing. The reason why we play as the main character regardless of their sex is because our efforts should be reflective on whether the quest is successful or not. This is why when the hero gets kidnapped, he is able to execute his own rescue is because we are playing AS that character. If not, then our perspective is usually changed to someone else. However, this is only the issue with this scenario from a gameplay standpoint, from a narrative standpoint it creates an unrealistic expectation for the ability of would be damsels. Let's take a look at Zelda and specifically Ocarina of Time. True, the moment Sheik turned back into Zelda she gets captured by Ganondorf, but we are ignoring the reason why Zelda was disguised as Sheik to begin with, it was because she was hiding from Ganondorf. You know, the all powerful sorcerer who conquered Hyrule, destroyed Hyrule castle and constructed a massive tower dedicated to himself in it's ruins. The person who possesses the Triforce of Power and needs the Triforce of Wisdom and Courage to complete his plans and now knows where Zelda is and that she has the Triforce of Wisdom. It doesn't help that Zelda chose to reveal herself in the Temple of Time which is just a short walk from Ganon's Tower. This isn't to say that Zelda CAN'T fight off Ganon or that Peach can't beat Bowser (apparently she can in Super Princess Peach), just that if the damsel in question is somehow incapable of self rescue than that shouldn't make them any less of a character unless the situation is such that normally she would be able to effectively save herself (I.E. Samus's helplessness in Metroid: Other M).

Oddly enough, the only time we hated Samus was when she was a Damsel in Distress.
Now I've actually heard a lot of complaint about Sarkeesian's video about how she "Forgot Samus." What these people are forgetting is that her video is ONLY focused on Damsels in Distress, not on female representations in video games in general. We can only assume that Sarkeesian would talk about Samus's representation (either for good or for ill) in later videos in her series, if they are EVER going to be made. But what can be said is the gaming community's reaction to Samus being rendered a Damsel in Distress in Metroid: Other M. At two points in that game Samus was rendered helpless in face of danger and had to be saved by two different male characters, and the gaming community raged against this portrayal of one of gaming's first female icons. This is interesting if you think about it, the predominantly male gaming community collectively criticized a female character's portrayal as being sexist because she was made a damsel in distress, when she had no right to be one. And this is the problem with Sarkeesian's views, we are not opposed to proper strong female representations, in fact some gamers love the idea of a woman who can kick their ass seven ways from Sunday. Me personally, I don't think a character's "strength" should be limited purely to physical strength or the ability to save themselves. No giving into despair, having trust in your loved one, and even trying to help them even while imprisoned can all be counted as a character's "strength" each of which has been done by our two fair princesses. Remember, if something is truly offensively sexist, you'd better believe most of the gaming population regardless of sex will pick up on it. We are not living in a time before women's rights, and while vigilance is necessary to keep equality, it doesn't come from people attacking a dragon that is not there.

Until next time and Happy Mother's Day

-Crescent, AWWWWWWWWWWW..........

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