Sunday, June 2, 2013

Crescent's Thoughts On: Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress Part 2

How long does it take to make your videos?
Okay, 3 weeks back I decided to tackle Anita Sarkeesian's "Tropes vs Women in Video Games" first video "Damsel in Distress: Part 1" as a replacement for having any actual content ready for Mother's day. Though I was late to the party, the fact that she hadn't released another video in the series in a little over 2 months since writing that article and the deafening silence from Sarkeesian gave me the impression that she had abandon the project and I might as well give my thoughts since that was what seemed like the last we would hear from her. But then about 5 days ago, Sarkeesian released her second part of her series, which is a continuation of her look at the "Damsels in Distress" trope. I seriously question why it would take Sarkeesian so long to produce videos when this project is the only thing she is doing at this time. I mean, I can sort of understand the year long gap between her Kickstarter and her first video as it was her gathering her research and getting the script planned out for the 13 video series. But seriously, I've seen people do higher quality content on shorter time frames.

Anyway, in this video Sarkeesian not only looked at modern day Damsels in contrast to her old school Damsels talk last time (Which is inaccurate given she talked about Mario, Zelda, and Double Dragon up to present day), but also a series of inverses and modifications of said cliche used now-a-days, modifications she calls the "Damsel in the Refrigerator" and "The Euthanized Damsel" and how this relates to domestic violence because....... Violent Video Games? And so, here are my thoughts.

Love is a powerful motivation.
Sarkeesian starts off with reiterating what the "Damsel in Distress" trope is and why SHE thinks it is bad as she stated in her last video (Which given the amount of time between the two videos is probably a good thing), and then proceeds to show a montage of more modern examples of the cliche. This fails in two regards, One) She is just giving a list of instances where this occurs and not giving any kind of context, as I said before cliches and tropes are neither good or bad, it is how they are used that is the issue and for that we need context. And Two) Just giving us a list of instances does nothing to tell us about it's prevalence.For example, I count 18 examples in her montage, but how do I know how prevalent the trope is unless I know out of how many these examples where taken. If there is only 20 games in the universe this might seem like a big deal but if it's 18 examples out of 2,000,000 games then it seems like a small pittance. Statistics matter in this case.

She next tries to address the common criticism that she is ignoring the context of the Damsel situation by effectively saying, it doesn't matter if the character is deep or complex or if she is actively attempting to effect a self-rescue or what the male character's relationship to the Damsel (whether romantic, platonic, or that of strangers) if the Damsel ultimately needs rescuing then it is a negative portrayal and all attempts at characterization are just lazy attempts by the developers to create an emotional response by gamers. What Sarkeesian is pretty much saying is that it doesn't matter whether it's a cardboard cutout or a character you TRULY care their safety, you are a misogynist if you try to rescue her. I guess, in Persona 4 towards the end of the game when I went to go rescue by little cousin Nanako, I didn't clear the entire dungeon in one run because I was emotionally invested in a character that I spent most of the game getting to know and genuinely felt like she was my little sister. NO!!!! It was because I wanted to maintain a power imbalance in our relationship so that I can dominate over her. For the PATRIARCHY!
Why a Refrigerator?
Next, she talked about the "Women in Refrigerators" trope which is apparently when a female character important to a male character is killed off for the sake of character development for the surviving male character. Sarkeesian then combines the Damsel in Distress trope with this Refrigerator thing. First, by listing a series of games who's basic plot is "Someone murderer your wife and kidnapped your daughter," and then by listing a bunch of games who's basic plot is "Someone murderer your wife/girlfriend and is holding their soul hostage." In the first set, Sarkeesian suggests that developers are using both tropes to further disempower women, because you know bullets can't harm empowered women and young girls are well known for their ability to fend off fully grown adults with fire arms, and in both cases are trying to fuel a male power fantasy by not only having the male character avenge a female character but also rescue them.

Now the topic of coping with the death of a love one is a really REALLY heavy topic, especially if that love one is murdered and the murderer is still at large, and thus it shouldn't be handled lightly. Which is why I find Sarkeesian's disrespect for the surviving male character's plight rather insensitive. Saying that the woman was just killed for the progression for the male character's storyline undermines the reason such a scenario is powerful in storytelling. It deals with issues of grief and vengeance and if this is the first time something like this happened to a character, it constitutes a massive paradigm shift for the character. It seems like men, according to Sarkeesian, are incapable of being motivated by any sense of love or loss. Which seems more sexist: That the lost of a loved one can shake a man to his core and causes him to do things that he wouldn't normally do in an attempt to avenge or save said love one, or that man only do things so that they can perpetuate their power fantasies?

This is the reason why I can't play Breath of Fire IV again.
After that little cheerfully interlude, we come to Sarkeesian's next family friendly cliche, something she likes to call the "Euthanized Damsel." This is where the hero pretty much fails and the Damsel must be killed, in most of her examples because she had been turned into some sort of monster and is pleading to "end her suffering." Now, before I talk about the trope itself, I'd like to take a minute to expose Sarkeesian's dishonesty. During her montage of examples of this trope, she showed the infamous Elina scene from Breath of Fire IV which she states, and I quote, "In Breath of Fire 4 (2000) Elina has been turned into a hideous monster and then begs you to kill her." What I want to focus on here is the word "you." Sarkeesian says that Elina want's "you" as in the Player to kill her. Now, I've played Breath of Fire IV, and the use of the word "you" here is inaccurate for two reasons. First, the entire scene is played out in a noninteractive cutscene, the only player involvement is to press the X button to move the conversation along. At no point do you take direct control the character and must interact with Elina to do the deed, so to say that the Player must kill her isn't true as the Player is a passive observer in this scene. Second, the main character to Breath of Fire IV is Ryu, the character asked to do the deed is Cray. If the main character is the proxy by which the Player interacts with in the world, then the Player is further removed from this event because Ryu, and by extension the Player, isn't the one who must do the deed. In fact, Ryu isn't even present in the scene itself. True, in Breath of Fire IV you switch which character you control over several times in the game, and I'm not talking about commanding other members of Ryu's party. There are several instances where you switch to other party members for durations where Ryu isn't present (namely for several minigames and short Nina adventures) as well as playing as Fou-lu, but each character has their own personality and make choices automatically when the story advances during these scene. Ryu on the other hand is a Silent Protagonist, his choices are made BY the Player during cutscenes, further establishing his position as the Player's proxy. Sarkeesian's wording here is largely to make the trope seem more common than it really is and to make sure the Player is implicated in each of the scenes as much as possible by saying that "YOU" must do the deed rather than the "Character" must do the deed.

Anyway, Sarkeesian points out this trope as particularly damaging because the female characters are "submissively accept their grisly fate and will often beg the player to perform violence on them" then stating that they are"giving men direct and total control over whether they live or die" and IMMEDIATELY CONTRADICTED in the same paragraph by saying "In other words these women are “asking for it” quite literally." So, men have complete control over women, but they have the power to "ask" for the player's action? What Sarkeesian doesn't grasp is the psychological and body horror that these games portray. In most of the cases she points out, the Damsel has been turned into some monstrosity, an abomination by some malevolent force, be it aliens, made scientists, or demons. She is horrified at herself and, in most cases, what she is compelled to do. She is afraid, afraid that at soon she would no longer be considered human, that the only remnant of her humanity is her mind and that is going fast. In this case, the "Euthanized Damsel" is her last chance to end her suffering, to die before she does something terrible to anyone else, to die while she can still be considered human. I find it insulting that the "Euthanized Damsel" as Sarkeesian put it, can be construed into such a twisted fantasy of male domination, where the reality presented in these games are that of a male protagonist, trying to save the women he loves, only to fail as the most inhuman things are done to her, reluctantly coming to the realization that he can't save her anymore, and the BEST he can do is to end her suffering and allow her to die peacefully as a human. She even ignores the long term psychological impact that accompanies the surviving character, not only by the fact that he couldn't save her from the horrible fate that became of her, but also by the fact that he himself had to pull the trigger.

Seriously, you are horrible for suggesting that being forced to kill your loved one is a power fantasy!
The rest of Sarkeesian's video is trying to tie Domestic Abuse to the violence depicted towards women in gaming which works as well as trying to tie violent behavior to video game violence, the recycling of the concept that women are just the property of the male characters and that their struggles are just the affirmation of their masculinity rather than the expression of love or loss, and even includes Sarkeesian flat out denying that context matters in storytelling in regards to whether a trope is used well or not. And I'm not going to talk about any of that in detail here because after her comments about the "Euthanized Damsel" everything else seems like just meaningless in comparison to her despicable attempts at turning some of the most heart-wrenching, morally grey, and complex scenes that ANY medium can present as just another way "men are dominating over women." I honestly want to go into how her comments about the fact that the narrative reasons for each instance of tropes make any discussion about portrayal in video games (regardless of sex) meaningless, or that how her blanket opinions make it nearly impossible to tell any kind of story with a male protagonist and a female side character without being labeled a misogynist. I'm all for equal right between the sexes, but as I said last time: Crusading against a dragon that doesn't exist is NOT the right way to do things.

Until next time, hopefully I'd have something more positive.

-Crescent, How about some POSITIVE female role models?

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