A response to the response to Damsels in Distress
(Originally I wrote this on Google Plus. I’m saving it here for posterity, easy linkage, and to add to the greater conversation on the internet in a less ephemeral fashion.)
Okay. For fuck’s sake. Here we go, internet.
There’s a video response to Sarkessian’s Damsel in Distress video. Here’s my response to that response. I’m putting links that lead to timestamps in the video so that you can click through to the things I’m responding to.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=76s – The trope is never about a single act of misfortune. Princess Peach and Zelda have both had careers based on them being the targets of distress. FOR FUCK’S SAKE THE ENTIRE MARIO FRANCHISE CAN BE SUMMED UP BY THE TAGLINE: “I’m sorry Mario, but your princess is in another castle.” These characters are never given the agency of being heroes in their own right. Peach only exists as a character with agency in MarioKart and whatever that stupid sports game is where she wears a bikini.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=88s – Sure. And if you’re looking at Elizabeth in Bioshock, I guess I could see this argument applying. But it certainly doesn’t apply to EITHER of the characters examined by Sarkeesian. Peach doesn’t “wait for Mario to assist her.” She waits for Mario to GET HER BACK from the evil mutant turtle dragon thing. (Note, I have no idea what Bowser is actually supposed to be, except spiky.) Peach never aids in her own recovery. Not once. And in the ONE game where Peach is the hero, that is played for comic effect in Mario’s complete uselessness.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=102s – Or it could be based on the fact that passively waiting for someone to rescue you is disempowering. I mean, sure, in real life if I get kidnapped, I’m going to be happy when the police come rescue me, but I’m not going to feel *empowered* by that. I’m not going to feel like I am more capable because I was saved by the NYPD or whatever. And that’s what happens in the trope.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=119s – And this is where we return to the idea that women’s greatest strength or power is passivity. Waiting. Fortitude. Remember I ranted about this a little while ago. I’m tired of men getting to have power through action, and women getting to have power through “hope.” It’s bullshit, and it’s a way of making sure that women (whether IRL or in stories) don’t seek _active_ agency. Because they should be pining for a hero and knowing he’ll come. We’re a little bit past _A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes_ and _Some Day My Prince We’ll Come_ aren’t we? I mean, really?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=140s – Who can tell me anything about either of these princesses that’s well known in pop culture that doesn’t relate to her victim status?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=190s – She separates the male character _story arc_ from the fictional “desires of the male character.” This is a fallacy. The game describes a character arc. It sure ain’t Zelda’s or Peach’s. Sure. You’re restoring order to the world by rescuing them, but you’re doing that by telling the story of a male protagonist for anywhere from five to fifteen hours. You’re not telling Peach’s story, or Zelda’s story, or the world’s story. You’re telling Link’s story and Mario’s story.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=206s – “And it cannot be said that the male protagonists are rescuing them solely to benefit their own storyline.” Except that that’s what a videogame is. The story line of the protagonist. (Sure, this becomes wishy-washy and arguable in the case of something like an MMO where there’s more than a single protagonist, but let’s focus on the traditional console game for now.) Without a damsel to rescue there would, quite literally, be *no storyline* for the protagonist. Achieving a rescue, and acquiring the prize (whether you view that as the romantic lead, a la Peach, or the more nebulous example of defeating Gandorf/Gannon in Zelda’s story) is the entire point. So, yes, actually, rescuing the princess is gratification of the protagonist’s story.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=235s – Seriously, in Mario, the freed toads in the various levels say “Your princess.” I think that makes the prize scenario here clear. I’m literally not going to waste any more time with this digression about whether or not a princess is being saved to be bedded because the pop cultural contexts around this, including the fairy tales that inspired the creation of these princesses makes it very clear what values are encoded in the idea of saving a princess from captivity. And if you are actually so culturally illiterate as to be arguing against that from a place of ignorance as opposed to disingenuous desire to provoke argument, you need a HELL of a lot more research than you’re going to get from a fifteen minute youtube video.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=267s – “She’s a little ditzy, lovably dainty, and the stereotypical princess in need of her hero.” [RE: Princess Peach.] So. Apparently these values make her someone I should seek to emulate? Because what I really look for in a role model is someone who can (charitably) be described as “ditzy.”
More importantly to that quote, however, remember that we were supposed to be empowered by passivity? If I am “in need” I cannot also be “empowered.” These two states of being are antithetical as expressed through the metafiction.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=286s – Here we tackle the idea that only the “critical viewer” ascribes negative connotation to Princess Peach’s repeated kidnappings. Sure, textually, no one thinks bad of her for being kidnapped. But the fact is that Princess Peach helps to cement the idea of princesses as passive, weak, and helpless. So much so that even this video describes her as such. Much like has been discussed in other essays (about stereotype threat, and sexualization) while no single image of a woman portrayed in such a fashion will ensure that women are thought of that way, the _collective picture_ being painted by repeated portrayals creates an environment that both displays _and reinforces_ the stereotype that women are helpless.
That collective picture is why lyrics such as Regina Spektor’s “Hero” come across as radical or revolutionary, and why they provide such a reference point as to have become things like tattoos. Because women *want* to be known as something else. (See also Ani DiFranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl.”)
It is *non-critical* (or, rather, average) viewers who are _most_ impacted by this, because they’re not engaging with the message being delivered in any sort of deconstructive fashion. Rather the values being transmitted are accepted at a face value of grounding the narrative in “reality.” This reality is actually no such thing, however if the story was divorced from this meta-narrative of women as helpless weak objects requiring rescuing (aka prizes to be won) it would be shocking.
Consider how surprising Final Fantasy X-2 was, with its lead of three women, and how it was often derided as the “pretty pretty princess dress-up” game, even though its plot and themes were a straight continuation from Final Fantasy X.
Also, to attack a second point made here: Of course we (the viewers) treat Peach as someone of less importance. The game isn’t called Super Princess Peach (no, seriously, I own that game and love it, flaws and all…). It’s Super Mario Bros. That indicates to us, the viewer (whether engaging critically or not) that the important character here is, yes, Mario. (Even Luigi gets short fucking shrift on this one.)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=339s – The point being made here is literally disingenuous trolling. Anita is not discounting Peach’s appearance in these games. Anita is pointing out that since Mario Party/Kart/Sports/Etc (and Super Smash Bros.) do not exist in a universe with any sort of plot whatsoever, to say that these games somehow legitimize Peach’s existence as anything more than a “trophy” is attempting to patch a hole in the wall with toothpaste. And she’s right. Does the fact that Peach drives a Kart or smashes Bowser with a hammer actually mean anything? No. Because she is still seen as the “lovable ditz in need of a hero” to paraphrase comments made above.
And the Mario spinoffs (such as Party, Kart, Tennis, etc.) would not exist without the platformers that gave us the characters. They are ancillary games. They are extensions of the brand in the same way that M&Ms now has coconut or peanut butter and jelly flavors. They are not core games and would not exist at all without the Mario name from the platformers to exploit. This isn’t Sarkeesian’s bias towards what games are most important, this is a sheer fact of the video gaming world. Unless you’re going to tell me that since Samus Aran is a playable character in Super Smash Bros, it is just as important to the Metroid universe as Metroid itself.
Further, to examine Princess Peach’s existence in these spin-off (or “brand extension”) titles, here’s some information pulled together for you by +Jesse Rupp: In the Mario Kart series, with the exception of two games, she has the lowest top-speed of all the characters, and her special ability is a heart that circles you, providing no benefit beyond pulling in other power-ups.
In Mario Tennis and Mario Golf (series) she has the lightest hit, and is labeled a “technique” character. In Mario Strikers she is fast, agile, and good at passing.
In Super Smash Bros she has the lightest hits, and her killing ability has decreased significantly in power with every iteration of the game.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=382s – Sales numbers also show that Harry Potter films do better than Harry Potter books. Does that mean that the films are more significant than the books? Seriously?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=425s – “Unfaltering wisdom and _elegance_…” (Emphasis mine.) So, Zelda is loved by the gaming community for a quality that is passive…and a quality that essentially comes down to her looks and the fact that she is a perfect example of “feminine qualities” (which is what “elegance” is coded to mean by our society). Basically, Zelda makes a good girlfriend. I fail to see how this, in any way, combats Anita’s points.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=492s – Zelda is going to be subject to evil. Again presenting Zelda (the princess, aka Ideal Woman…we have that point clear in our heads now, right? That princesses are Ideal Women, in a sort of platonic concept notion) as a passive receiver and object. Zelda, who is wise, cannot combat this evil on her own, but requires Link to save her (and often fetch quest the pieces of the solution in a way that reads as incredibly lazy, and this from someone who enjoys fetch quest games…).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=511s – Actually, yes. Not being a playable character *does* mean that she’s not as _equally important_. That’s the definition of the playable character (protagonist). The most important person in the framing of the story. That’s why you can (usually) fast forward past dialogue-y cut scenes where they interact with other people, but not, oh say, the fights. Because it’s their story and their arc. (See above.)
We then proceed to about 90 seconds of citation of games in which women save men. I won’t even get into how many of these games involve non-human women. I’ll just say this. Of the named games, I’ve played two. Maybe three, I can’t remember how many Donkey Kongs I’ve played. Anita isn’t deconstructing the tropes and talking about why they’re harmful solely because they affect hardcore gamers who’ve played baskets of obscure titles. She’s talking about games with wide name recognition that function as pillars of their platforms. Because the tropes represented (and the enculturation of the values) occur as powerfully (if not more so) with the “casual” gamer who has only played the games with wide name recognition.
However, I can provide a list just as long, if not twice as long, of games that provide the damsel in distress trope, glorifying women only as long as they exist to be objects that are winnable, or to ultimately end up in another trope that Gail Simone gave the name Women in Refrigerators.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=615s – Okay, then let’s talk about how media reinforces shitty attitudes. Here are a pair of studies that say the media you consume reinforces your ideas about the world through normalizing them:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/0022-4537.00201/abstract;jsessionid=D44894F4811B909CE2EF9BC363534DFE.d03t01?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false [A study on stereotype threat, which indicates that women’s received beliefs about appropriate female behavior affects their ability to do math.]
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02086.x/full [A study indicating that “lad mag” attitudes towards women normalize rape behaviors.]
While neither of these studies focuses on video games, video games are a medium that requires enough self-identification and immersion that similar effects to these would be seen. Video games, by presenting this trope, normalize these attitudes and behaviors to such a degree that a story presenting a woman who does not fit them (while being otherwise identifiable in the same genre) is considered aberrant.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=626s – And now, for lack of an actual critical point, we’re tone policing Anita.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=649s “The people the developers should have in mind are the gamers, consumers…not the social commentators and the pop-culture critics…” Except that we are gamers. We are consumers. And we are being driven away, in droves, by seeing women repeatedly presented in ways that reduce us to objects and subjects of (male) protagonist gaze instead of protagonists and characters in our own right.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=657s – Arsenic is also a successful product for killing vermin. Does that mean that we shouldn’t be looking for a more humane, less toxic to humans product because this one works, is cheap to produce, and sells by the bucket? This is an argument (“These video games sell, therefore we shouldn’t change them, regardless of whether or not the attitudes they present are bad”) that ultimately equates to “stop telling me my thing is problematic, because I like it, and I don’t want to like a problematic thing.”
I’ve said before. I will say again. It is okay to like problematic things. I like Mario games. I like Zelda games. I accept that they are problematic. But what I don’t do is try to pretend like they don’t have problematic aspects.
Liking a problematic thing does not make you a bad or problematic person. However, burying your head in the sand to avoid the fact that the thing you like is hurting people, or supporting culture in hurting people, by refusing to look at it critically can (and often does) make you an asshole. [And this is where *I* will get tone policed. Because now that I’ve said that, no one can take this argument seriously, right? Fuck.]
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=685s – I’d love to. Unfortunately that list of games is vanishingly small, and most of us have already played all of them. Because we’re not considered profitable consumers. Which is why, instead, I have to play games that rely on lazy tropes.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=700s – Now that this video has done a hatchet job on Anita (and that’s what it’s doing. Attacking Anita, not refuting her points) we’re once again getting the rhetoric of a woman who is performing in the exceptional woman capacity (“All feminists are bitches, _except you_ because you agree with us men”). She’s reassuring us that of course she’s still a woman, with woman feelings, she just wants us not to blame the poor game developers for what’s clearly “our problem.” It’s not a problem with the games, we’re just looking at it wrong.
That’s bullshit. _This_ is why feminism is still necessary.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=710s – This video didn’t represent the other half of Anita’s points. Instead it cherry picked quotes from her video, addressed them with often tangentially related information, and then acted like Anita was the one out of line for pointing out how this trope can and does reinforce negative stereotypes and why it should be lessened if not retired in game development.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=718s – TONE ARGUMENT! For fuck’s sake. First off, it’s no one’s responsibility to leave viewers feeling uplifted. Anger, disappointment, and sadness are all valid and appropriate feelings, and women are often expected to repress them to serve some sort of social greater good. That’s the biggest reason why Anita keeps facing pushback. Because she’s daring to have feelings that don’t conform to the ideal feminine passivity (that, ironically, she’s examined in this trope). Secondly, no one ever said or required that Anita’s video provide some sort of “balanced view” of gaming. It’s not her job to give positive role models or make people feel better about themselves. The job she took on was deconstructing a trope, and she’s done it very well.
BTW, this was clearly another personal attack on Anita hidden behind an “opposing viewpoint.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=HJihi5rB_Ek#t=772s – Nope. I am not required to compromise with someone and collude in my own categorical oppression. Neither is Anita. Neither is anyone in a category suffering categorical oppression (anyone who is commonly identified as Other).
And thus concludes my response to this video.
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