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.

Smooth Criminal: Genshiken II, Chapter 69

Last time we met what can be best described as the Luigi to Yoshitake’s Mario, Yoshitake Risa. No, seriously, think about it. She’s younger, taller, and jumps higher.

Anyway, unlike the previous little sister in Genshiken who didn’t really get a dedicated spotlight until many volumes later, we get to learn a lot more about Risa just one chapter after her introduction. She’s quite an intriguing character, so I’m all for it.

(Did you know Yoshitake has the power to snore in English?)

As the freshman drinking party concludes at Yoshitake’s place with everyone crashing for the night, we get to learn quite a bit about young Risa. She awakened to her nature as a shotacon because of a particular child star, though she prefers the timelessness of 2-D over the aging process which inevitably affects the inhabitants of the real world. Also, though she loves playing basketball (enough to attend games instead of going to doujin events), she is tired of everyone assuming that she’s going to pick a college based on her hoops prowess. Yoshitake Rika, always the loving older sister, not only buys all of Risa’s doujinshi for her, but brought her to Shiiou University to help her think things through.

When all’s said and done, Risa has one last request. Knowing that Hato began crossdressing so that he could make friends with fujoshi, Risa is curious as to just how “challenging” that process is, how far Hato has gone for the sake of meeting like-minded people. Yoshitake, who can also be a “helpful” older sister, manages to twist the situation such that it ends with a visit to Hato’s place.

There, Yoshitake wants to use the time Hato spends showering to find out all of his secrets, but Yajima stands in her way. Despite assistance from the younger sibling , Yajima manages to stop Yoshitake, though in the process they inadvertently open the door to the bathroom and both Yajima and Risa get to see that Hato is indeed a man, albeit an incredibly smooth one. Risa, with Hato’s image possibly burned into her brain, now finds a reason to take the exam for Shiiou University, much like the other Genshiken little sister.

Before I get into my thoughts on the chapter itself, I want everyone to look at this image of Risa’s body.

Risa’s figure can be described as that of a tall, slender but athletic woman with small curves. It makes sense, given the amount of time she puts into sports. It is also an incredibly uncommon body type for a female character in a manga with men as its primary audience. Sure, there are girls with small chests in shounen/seinen, and there are also plenty of athletes, but rarely are they like Risa’s. Even in most comics targeted towards girls of all ages, a body type like this is not drawn with as much focus on anatomy.

Ohno, Kasukabe, and Ogiue’s bodies were already quite different, and Yajima is of course overweight, but Yoshitake Risa’s realistically athletic figure, which doesn’t really try to adhere to typical notions of feminine appeal nor masculine portrayals of heavy musculature, makes me fully aware of just how varied the body types of the female characters are in Genshiken. It’s actually quite impressive, and I think shows that Kio Shimoku, more than ever, is trying to draw female characters for men in a way that fosters understanding of women as people.

The way this chapter is, it actually feels like a hang-out between girls (plus Hato). It’s kind of like that scene at the retreat back in Volume 7, only without the painful recollection of traumatic events from the past. Instead, they were able to create new traumatic events (again, Hato). Again, it’s not out of the blue, and when I look back on Genshiken it’s clear that it’s always been different in portraying female characters, but Chapter 69 somehow feels like a particularly strong example of this approach.

I continue to enjoy the sibling relationship between Rika and Risa for reasons touched upon in the chapter summary above. Yoshitake comes across as a person who genuinely loves and looks out for her younger sister, and it’s clear that her happy-going personality has had a positive effect on Risa’s development through the years. That Risa is comfortable with calling her older sister for advice is in itself a strong sign of their bond, as is the fact that Risa feels compelled to go along with her sister’s hair-brained schemes (crossdressing, bearhugging Yajima). Again, I have to contrast it with the Sasaharas, who eventually reached something along those lines, but only through a long and arduous process.

As for Yajima, I find that she is in this strange position where Hato’s crossdressing has taken on the opposite effect of what it used to be for Yajima. Initially, Hato’s female guise made Yajima rather uncomfortable, as it challenged certain deep-rooted feelings and beliefs in her. As they have become friendlier however, the crossdressing almost acts like a barrier preventing Yajima from thinking of him as a man, which Yajima consistently views as a kind of “other,” like so many nerds out there. This is why you see Yajima try to prevent Risa from convincing Hato to change into his male version. Poor Yajima.

Speaking of Hato, the chapter also provided some insight into his life. For one thing, we learn that the reason Hato lives so far away is that he had to find an apartment with a walk-in closet to store both his dresses and his massive amount of doujinshi. Now that’s the kind of dedication that Risa can understand.

Next chapter is the school festival, and while not quite as exciting as a ComiFest chapter, it’s still something I look forward to from Genshiken. We’ll also get to see Ogiue again. And if that’s not enough, Volume 11 is on its way in February December with a special edition and an exclusive Hato figure. I’ll probably end up owning one myself, if only because I try to get every single special edition of Genshiken that I can.

I do not intend to ever break that streak.