Thursday, March 7, 2013

"Damsel in Distress: Part 1" - An Analysis and Critique

Feminist Frequency's "Damsel in Distress: Part 1" video was recently released, talking about various depictions of women in videogames as, well, a "Damsel in Distress". The video came about as a result of a kickstarter started by Anita Sarkeesian in order to fund a series of videos (of which this video is only a part of) discussing the various depictions of women in videogames.

The project quickly came under flak by video game enthusiasts for a number of reasons- most notably, that she had asked for money to do what she had essentially been doing already (making videos talking about things), and also citing her generally poor track record of misrepresentation and having a very closed-off style to her own arguments (shutting down comments, ratings, and etc for every video- except the one advertising her kickstarter).

7 months after the promised due-date, the first video was finally released- containing many citations, and a few arguments being made. Let's dive in, shall we?


Straight away, the video has a noticeable increase in quality in comparison to her previous videos- nothing particularly important in of itself, but it shows some of what the time (and potentially money) was spent on. A fancy new intro, some new music, and so on. We're also treated to a variety of clips from various video games depicting the "damsel in distress" trope in action- emphasizing that it's a pretty widespread trope.

She proceeds to her preface, explaining the general purpose of the videos- and stating that it's possible and often necessary to understand that you can both enjoy a game, and simultaneously be critical of its more problematic aspects.

Afterwards, she begins to discuss a game I personally lament the loss of- Dinosaur Planet. For those of you who aren't aware, Dinosaur Planet is a game that was set to be a fairly unique action/adventure experience, and would eventually become Starfox Adventures. The game had much of its content cut- and ended up being a pretty different game altogether (in many ways). It was to star two main characters- Krystal and Sabre. However, Anita pretty much only talks about Krystal- although she states that she is "one of two playable protagonists", she only shows clips of Krystal and her role in the game (as well as how she was "damselized"). Which is fair- Krystal pretty much got cut from the game for no real good reason, while Sabre was replaced by the more recognizable Fox McCloud- and is thus much more relevant to what she's talking about.

The issue, though, is that she states Krystal was "replaced" by Fox- which isn't entirely true. Certain segments were indeed once Krystal's, but for the most part, Fox took the place of Sabre (an existing male character). A few segments of Krystal's were kept in the game- mostly just segments that made use of the staff for various puzzles, but other than that, it was mostly Sabre's gameplay that Fox ended up replacing. That being said, she does make a good point- Krystal was needlessly sexualized and turned from a pretty cool character into something that makes everyone in the room groan.

Carrying on, there's a number of citations and definitions stated- namely what the "damsel in distress" trope is, where it originated from, and so on. It's pretty interesting stuff in of itself- but it goes on for more than several minutes. Interesting facts, but could have been its own video and referenced in the video itself. Afterwards, she goes back to discussing videogames- but again, is simply stating some facts. Specifically, Shigeru Miyamoto's involvement in a number of early video games (more specifically, games that made use of the "Damsel in Distress" trope).

Moving on, she points out that Super Mario Brothers 2 (the American version- which was a reskinned Doki Doki Panic) was the only "main" Mario game that had Peach as a playable character, and that none of the later ones (even the recent 4 player ones) don't have her as a playable character. I actually agree that it's rather silly for Peach to still be a damsel even in a 4 player game- but Anita never really says why it's important to consider only the "main" titles here.

Afterwards, she touches on why the trope is harmful to women in general- it reinforces the stereotype that women are essentially "objects" that are stolen from the protagonist. Unfortunately, she doesn't go into much detail here- and this was disappointing. I feel as though the main part of her video should have been about this- and she should have really gone in depth on the subject, explaining the detrimental effects of stereotyping in media and so on. Or at least, referenced something to read into on the subject.

A bit of a sidetrack here, but it's necessary to point out that Anita herself said the trope had existed long before video games- but brings up pretty early examples of video games (in the 80's and early 90's) as making use of this trope. Most videogames back then just didn't have the capability for an interesting story- so they pretty much all relied on simple, easy to recognize storytelling methods for simple gameplay. This was fine- videogames were just really starting out. Early films, TV series, and so on were all the same- every medium relies on simplicity when it's first starting out.

Anyway, she proceeds to discuss The Legend of Zelda franchise- this is where things get a little more interesting. The early Zelda games indeed had very cut and try damsel in distress scenarios- but starting with Ocarina of Time, it got progressively more interesting. Of course, you still had Link as the playable character, Zelda as the princess, and Ganon as the bad guy- but by then, you had more interesting sub-plots, and the main story of Zelda games actually ended up being pretty irrelevant (in comparison with the side-stories and so on).

She makes note that some of Zelda's incarnations (specifically citing Sheik and Tetra) were represented more positively than other versions- which was good, but she quickly cites that they still end up being a damsel in some form of another. The issue with this is that it's not entirely truthful about what's going on in each situation- it isn't just Zelda being helpless for no good reason, but is actually explained for each scenario (usually).

For example, in Ocarina of Time, Ganondorf is watching Link and Zelda's interactions when she transforms back into her normal form- and is thus captured shortly after, because Ganondorf realizes who she is. Anita paints it out to be Zelda suddenly becoming weak, but this certainly isn't the case. It might be lazy writing on the developer's end, but it's not quite so black-and-white.

I understand that Anita's trying to focus on the damsel in distress part, but it feels a bit like misrepresentation to try and make a point.

After some more information about The Legend of Zelda, she proceeds to tie it into a point about how the "Damsel in Distress" trope does more than just make women seem weak- it strips them of power that they otherwise had. Although it took 17 minutes, this is actually a good point- not only is it lazy writing, but it's pretty much wasted potential when you have otherwise interesting characters relegated to side roles just for the sake of filling a tradition.

What's a little bothersome, though, is that she makes the claim that- at its essence- the trope trades the female's power for the male's protagonist's power. However, she doesn't really tie this in anywhere- she just says that's how it is, and says that because the woman can't escape, it's up to the man to save her. It's still possible for both to co-exist- the woman could be escaping, and the man could be trying to save her at the same time. This could actually make for a more interesting story right off the bat- despite using the "damsel in distress" trope. However, I won't knock Anita solely for not bringing this up- as she's not talking about solutions thus far. Still, she never really tied in how the woman losing her power automatically means the man suddenly has power because of it.

After this, she points out a number of classic games being "resurrected", ported, re-made, and etc. However, she doesn't really tie it to any point- aside from audiences being subjected to "regressive crap". I'm not really sure where she was going with this, to be honest.

Finally, she goes on to make a few arguments for what needs to happen- firstly, that people should recognize that games have an effect on people's perceptions, and it's important to understand the cultural significance of videogames. Secondly, she says that it would be interesting to see more females take up the standard "hero" role- which seems like a suggestion on how to improve things.

The Issues

Now, with all that said and done, we can probably summarize the whole video as such:

-The damsel in distress trope exists in videogames on a large scale.

-It's harmful (in a variety of ways) to both the characters and social perceptions of females in general.

...and, well, that's about it. Both of those are important things to state and understand, of course- neither of them should be taken lightly, as they ARE issues and flaws worth bringing up. However, this is where I must be more critical of Anita's video- she spends 23 minutes and 35 seconds to essentially state things that are mostly already known, and does very little to make any arguments or real points outside of those things.

It's also basically reading off what certain tropes are, and giving examples of them- which could be just as easily done by simply going to TVTropes. It isn't providing anything new- it isn't really a critical analysis, just a summary of what things are. Remember, she's stated multiple times that she's a critic- but she isn't doing much to argue her points, and is simply making statements.

Much like her earlier videos, she's still not representing anything really outside of what she's trying to say- she isn't making any arguments, she isn't trying to disprove anything, or even trying to prove much outside of very obvious things (such as that the "Damsel in Distress" trope exists... which almost everyone knows of by now, to some degree). That would be fine, but she also isn't really trying to explain why it's all bad, or even what to do about it- or what could have been done instead, etc. The most we got was her suggesting that more females should take up the "hero" role- which I can agree with, but isn't really enough to solve the problem. Speaking of, she also really hasn't gone into detail about the problem itself.

Really, there's just a lot of questions one could ask. How does it affect people's perceptions of females? How do you avoid having it affect people's perceptions of females? Does it really affect people's perceptions of females? Is it truly a problem that can be identified as simply as labeling it a "trope"? Is the trope inherently bad? If so, what else should take its place as a simple story device? Wouldn't those storytelling devices come with their own share of issues that could change people's perceptions for the worse as well?

What can be done to help solve the issues the trope creates? What all issues are even created by the trope? Are your solutions practical and desirable from an objective standpoint? Is it truly as big of an issue as you're making it out to be? What other resources can I use aside from these videos to even discuss the issue? Is there anybody else talking about these issues?

Really, when you look past the wave of citations and pure information, there isn't actually that much being said- and what little there is said, isn't particularly backed up with very much.

The Solutions

First off, after laying down the foundation of information (which was what most of this video even was), it's important to make arguments with these facts- there's many you can make, and many many arguments that need to be made in order to back them all up and solidify the problem. Facts in of themselves are meaningless- it's as useful as saying "There's starving children in Africa!". That isn't a solution- it doesn't help anybody, even if it's true. You're simply stating facts, and nothing else- even if some people don't know of it, it still isn't really helping by itself.

Facts are only useful if you're using them towards a larger goal- such as a solution, or a plan, or even just an argument. Much of what needs to be made- now that it's pretty much 100% solidified that the "damsel in distress" trope exists on some level- is actual points, arguments, and so on that tie to the issue Anita is even claiming. Which is to say, that it changes people's perceptions of females (due to videogames being a part of popular culture now).

Next, it's then necessary to think of some kind of solution- some kind of fix. You can state all the issues of the world with as much logic as you want, but it doesn't help anybody if you don't have a plan on how to fix them. This goes with the above point, but is a bit more specific- a direct solution is necessary if you're going to point out the flaws in something. The most we've gotten thus far is that there should be more female protagonists- but that doesn't really fix the issue, as there would still be female "Damsel in Distress" types.

Much of this needs to be explained and expanded upon- and I'm hoping that I'm simply jumping the gun a bit, as there's still many videos to be released. However, if neither of these solutions are made (using the facts to form arguments, and forming a solution), then Anita's videos will all essentially be pointless.

If that is the case, though, I will personally make my own version of everything she's trying to do, and do it better- listing actual cohesive arguments, and even forming solutions. That's not my job, though, and I'll wait to see what Anita and her crew can cook up before doing so.

At its core, pointing out issues relating to sexism- especially in places we wouldn't normally look- is pretty useful. However, if it's not done properly, then it can potentially soil discussion of the topic as a whole. I don't want that to happen. At the end of the day, I'd like there to be more games with better representations of people in general- not just females. Even if Anita drops the ball, that shouldn't ruin what she's claiming she's fighting for.