My Thoughts on the “Damsel in Distress” in Tropes vs. Women in Video Games

Over the past few months, Anita Sarkeesian has released the first two videos on her series concerning tropes regarding women in video games. Back when it was first announced, I had my concerns that she would so emphasize what has gone wrong that she wouldn’t leave sufficient space for what has gone right, or even what was meant to be female empowerment but fails for whatever reason. Later, after having done some further reading, I amended my thoughts on the matter when I realized that, even if it wasn’t my intent, the idea that women (as well as people in general) should settle for “good enough” as if that’s the best they could hope for in regards to portrayals of women in media is a problem.

I watched the first two episodes, which concern the “damsel in distress” trope. The third one, which is supposed to address some of the inversions or subversions of the damsel device, is not yet out, so I can’t at this point speak about that element, but I’d still like to state my thoughts on what I’ve seen so far. I find Anita’s strongest overall argument to be the idea that video games have tended to assume violence as a primary course of action so often that as games have tried to become more sophisticated this mechanic limits the potential avenues for solutions beyond “punching them until they die.” As Anita notes, the inertia created by the games of old, both in terms of having damsels and having violence as a means to save them (or not), is perpetuated, though not out of malice but from not thinking about other alternatives.

Multiple times during the videos, Sarkeesian talks about how the hero having to rescue (or even mercy kill) the damsel turns the woman into an object or goal for a male power fantasy, and one of the concerns I have with this is that, even if she might not mean it, it can be interpeted as casting male power fantasies in a negative light. Certainly I understand some of the problems of the male power fantasy and how its ubiquity can create a narrow scope of examples of acceptable behavior for men in lieu of male characters capable of functioning in different capacities , but I don’t think male power fantasies are wholly the product of perceived gender role imbalances where a man must protect the woman, nor are they mainly about the trivialization of women, even if it on some level contributes to the perpetuation of such stereotypes.

Rather, rescuing the girl speaks more to the fantasy that a man can be relied on no matter what, and is capable of accomplishing anything and everything. Thus, when the damsel is fridged (killed or injured for the sake of advancing the male character’s story), it is about playing with these assumptions and desires, an attempted move towards more diversity and creativity in storylines even if the products end up not being very well thought out, containing many of the problems which Anita points out. The power to do something in every possible circumstance can also be found in the idea of the self-made man or the rugged outdoorsman, who can be thrown in the middle of a jungle and come out of it with muscles flexing. I think it’s a valid desire for men to want to be able to be relied on, though once again I understand that wanting to be relied on and being relied on as a requirement for masculinity are two different things.

You might be asking, “But if there are all of these problems with the male power fantasy, why even defend it?” In that case, compare the male power fantasy to another type of “power” fantasy, the rags-to-riches story, where a person uses their wits, hard work, and/or luck to go from a life of poverty to one of profit and wealth. There are many valid criticisms for such stories, such as the idea that it reinforces an unforgiving capitalist mindset where money is the most important thing in life, or that if rags-to-riches stories present the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps then it implies that people who haven’t done so simply haven’t tried hard enough. In other words, there’s a clear downside to this type of narrative. However, there are people who enjoy these stories and fantasize about doing the same thing, even if they are conforming to a flawed concept that is a product of assumed societal values it still speaks to their desires. This ability to respond to people’s desires is one of the things I think art and creative media can and should have, as is the ability to criticize that very same thing.

To restate, it’s not entirely clear if Sarkeesian is saying that male power fantasies are tainted from the roots, but I could see this being an issue that skeptical viewers might jump on to show that she is “man-hating” even though she isn’t. At the very least, Sarkeesian points to the ability for male characters to get captured and then break out of captivity through their own strength and wits as a way in which male characters are not truly in distress, and this scenario has a clear power fantasy component which can function without the victimization of women as a plot device.

Of course, this leaves the question of where the “female power fantasies” are, and in this regard Sarkeesian is right that the repeated use of women as damsels in video games feeds into the perpetuation of these scenarios. However, my opinion is that this does not make the male power fantasy in video game form itself the main problem and that the character in need of rescue needs to be removed from media, but the lack of alternatives for characters of all genders and sexualities to do more and be more. That said, I think Anita’s goal in making these videos is on some level to create awareness so that people will think to produce these alternatives, and in that regard she is getting people to talk.

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