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:
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 to, for 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.