Damsel in distress — video games and real life

Anita Sarkeesian has a great analysis of the use of the “damsel in distress” trope in video games. With one example after another, she indicts the popular culture depictions of victimized women who need to be rescued by strong men. (Knight in shining armor, anyone?) Sarkeesian explains that these “disposable women” are vehicles for showing the strength/heroism/courage of the men who are the only players with agency.

Sarkeesian names a classic victimized woman: the “woman in the refrigerator” who has already been killed, leaving the hero to take violent and bloody pursuit of the evil-doers who have killed his wife or daughter. She recites a litany of examples of the Fridge/Damsel hybrid: “Your wife is brutally murdered and then you have to rescue your daughter.”

Sarkeesian is talking about violence, and about the cultural centrality of violence against women: “Even though most of the games that we are talking about don’t explicitly condone violence against women, nevertheless they trivialize and exploit female suffering as a way to ratchet up the emotional or sexual stakes for the player.”

These are strictly male-centered stories. Women are portrayed as “symbols meant to invoke the essence of a feminine ideal,” which includes “purity, beauty, kindness, sensuality.” The death or kidnapping or violation of a woman is the loss of the property of the hero.

Destructive, anti-woman tropes, of course, go far beyond video games, and there are plenty of other tropes that disempower women, such as the classic Disney princess.

Lots of writing about Disney princesses, including this and this and this, and a totally teen take: What Disney princesses taught me about being a lady. Sometimes, of course, a picture is worth a thousand words:

From Feministing.

Sarkeesian’s analysis of video game violence against women and the Disney critics’ analysis of the princess-ification of women present legitimate and convincing cultural critiques.

The critiques go beyond representations on various sizes of screens. Sarkeesian  places the video games in the larger cultural context of violence against women, citing the horrific statistics about how a woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds in the United States, and, on average, more than three women  are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends every day.

Actual violence is a huge part of the equation. Even more widespread, indeed, almost universal, is the experience of victimization, of feeling threatened, of staying at home, or going out only in groups, of watching over your shoulder and hearing every footstep behind you on the street, because you need tofor safety and survival. 

While male characters in video games defend “their” women, their girlfriends and wives and daughters, so do men in real life, whether by physical action or just by being there, by implicitly or explicitly signaling other men that this is “my woman, wife, daughter, sister.”

Is it a good thing to defend someone against attack? Yes — and, objectively, we can understand male feelings of pride in defending a friend or loved one.

Is it a bad thing to be under attack and to have to be defended by someone else? Yes, again. And we should also understand feelings of both anger at the men who are  attackers and resentment at those who are rescuers, because we should not need rescue.  (And because, in fact, “being rescued” can also take away the opportunity to demonstrate that we can take care of ourselves.)

Near the beginning of her video, Sarkeesian says: “Please keep in mind that it’s both possible and even necessary to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of its more problematic or even pernicious aspects.”

From Jane Austin to video games, that’s a good piece of advice. Might even have some non-media applicability to interpersonal interactions.

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One response to “Damsel in distress — video games and real life

  1. O.K. Fair enough, and I even agree with most of this, but it’s not the whole story, particularly the analysis of the Disney films (I don’t know the video games). Not that all of the terrible things said about the Disney enterprise may not be true, but…. Take, for instance, Disney’s _Sleeping Beauty_. No, the princess has little agency (though look at her in the film, she actually does have some in the few scenes she has), but the prince has scarcely any, either. Who runs things in this film? The Kings? (Granted, the one Queen we see may actually not even have a line to speak, and I don’t think we ever learn her name, as we do for the Kings). But the agency is with the fairies, all female. First there is the impressive and powerful Maleficent, but then there are the 3 good fairies, on whom I believe small children focus more than on Philip or Aurora/Briar Rose. I certainly did, and so did my small daughter. Even the active Philip is rescued from prison by the fairies, Merryweather has a wild-west shoot-out with the evil Raven/Crow, turning him to stone, then Philip is armed by the fairies, told what to do, and at the critical moment, when he’s doing exactly as told, Flora uses a magic spell to send his phallic sword right into Maleficent in Dragon form, leaving only the 3 fairies with phallic wands to brandish. There is little sense in the movie that Philip “owns” Aurora, and indeed, he rejects his father’s dynastic plans, not realizing that the woman he loves is in fact the princess. Similarly, it may be that Aurora can be more easily directed into an arranged marriage, but it’s by the fairies that she’s directed, not actually her father. If you want to make essentially this same critique of the fairy tale, as told by the Grimms or by the French fairy tellers (I think in this case Perrault), you are probably on more solid ground, but even there, things get very complicated. Again, it has a lot to do with how the story is read, what strategies the reader brings to these stories, which were not originally intended for children, except as the Grimms gradually rewrote them over the years and subsequent editions.


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