Game on Girl Podcast, Game Culture, Podcast, Play, Video Games

Episode 69 – Feminist Frequency’s Damsels in Distress Part 2


Toria joins us again this week to discuss the second episode in Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs Women in Video Games series, The Damsel in Distress Part Two. In the second episode in the series, Anita Sarkeesian takes on more modern representations of this long standing plot device. We discuss the uses and abuses of the trope, Sarkeesian’s research methods, and our own feelings about rescuing the damsel.

Rhonda, Toria, and I all share what we’re reading, watching, and playing in our new segment, Geeking Out.

Let us know what you think about the show in the comments.

Until next time, game on!
Regina & Rhonda & Toria

7 thoughts on “Episode 69 – Feminist Frequency’s Damsels in Distress Part 2”

  1. From what I gather you three are so angry and you don't know what to do with your anger so you take it out on Anita. She is not saying anything is sexist. She is saying it's a trope– overused and lazy storytelling. She is a popular culture critic. She is supposed to be critical. The series is called "Tropes vs Women". It's about tropes, stop saying it's only about her wanting to tell the game developers that they're sexist. They're not, they're just recyclists in terms of stories, emotional responses and game mechanics. "Because it works". Anita wants to challenge them to do better. She wants to challenge us as viewers AND people who interact to really think about what we're digesting.

    Now, if you know anything about domestic violence/abuse, it is about one partner losing their sense of identity. It is about being nothing but a tool– an object– of the other partner to use for their emotions. That sometimes means punching bag, yes, but it's more importantly about the partner feeling that anything the other partner does to you, is justified, and OK (even though you are embarrassed about it in public). Thus, imagery where women do not stand up for themselves, and beg the male protagonist to help her, because she can never help herself, bids into that.

    Damsel in Distress and women in refrigerators; you say you don't see a problem with a man wanting to go save a girl/have a dead wife or whatever. Sure, but come on. The thing is LAZY. It triggers an emotional response, but it is LAAAAZY. It is a trope. Do we not want our films and games to rise above lazy storytelling? Why are you guys defending it by saying "pff, there are buddy movies out there that do the same thing"… Sure, but how much screen time is that buddy being given most of the time? And better yet, does that justify it? Shouldn't we rise above it? Don't you want to feel like the games you play is not a movie you hate? Do you not want to feel like you were included as a target audience in the games you choose to play?
    Anita goes from the perspective of straight male players because the protagonist in the game is a straight WHITE male even, and if you think about it, it's quite evident that the target player for the games she mention have that target audience. This stuff does not only hurt women, it hurts men, too. That said, I'm glad you're pissed off that she only mentions male players, but be pissed off because YOU are forced to play games with an awful story & interactions with women inside of them, because you are barely even considered to be a part of the crowd that is supposed to buy the game.
    "Just don't buy the game" doesn't solve anything. "Just don't vote" doesn't solve anything either.

    I endure sooo many shitty stories/interactions with women in the game just because I absolutely adore the game mechanics. Why can't I have both? Don't you guys want both?

  2. Thank you for your comments, Delilah. I appreciate the time and effort you've taken to respond to the episode.

    I'd like to start my comments by assuring you that I am not angry with Anita Sarkeesian at all. In fact, I agree and say in the episode that ALL the tropes are lazy story telling. That much is true. What I think is lacking from her analysis is the human element. Because she is doing a strictly textual analysis, she removes what is in my opinion the most important component of any game: the player. I agree that there are more bad/unfortunate/sloppy portrayals of female character in games but I also think the same is true in movies, TV shows, and books. I think because we engage with video games differently than other passive media, we want to hold them to a higher standard. I think that is the most important message in Sarkeesian's work, actually, that game developers should be more sensitive to the portrayals of female characters. It is a new medium, even though many of us can say we've been playing video games for more than 30 years.

    I expect a lot from video games and I want exactly what you ask here – for the game mechanics and the story to be outstanding. But I don't think that looking solely at a textual reading of video games shows us what is really going on. As I said in the episode where we talked about part one of her series, it was an amazingly powerful experience for me to rescue Zelda, regardless of the fact that I was a woman playing a male character. I acutely remember that moment and many others from games when I had no choice but to play a male character as being some of the greatest moments of my childhood. It didn't matter to me that it was a lazy story telling device. I still had that sense that I was the hero.

    As a woman who was in an emotionally abusive relationship for more than a decade, I am very familiar with the dynamics you are talking about. Sometimes the most soothing experience I could have while I was in that relationship was escaping into a game. It didn't matter to me then who I was rescuing, or what the story behind the game was because I was in complete control of that experience. It is that sense of empowerment that is missing from Sarkeesian's analysis and that I think is a real shame.

  3. Hey there, Delilah. I could echo a lot of what Regina has already said, because she hit a lot of things dead on, but I’ll try a different tack here.

    After recording this episode, I went to Anita’s YouTube channel and watched several of her videos about other tropes that tend to target women (manic pixie dream girl, the token minority, etc.) and found that even though it still had the same faults that come from not checking your bias — which could happen to anyone when presenting a point — I enjoyed them far more than I like this current series about the tropes against women in gaming. The reason?: she has something that could be considered a call to action at the end of each video. She sums up each trope with examples from film and television, and then challenges filmmakers and screenwriters to take risks and to try to see women in a new light and as being valuable assets to the products they are trying to make. We have yet to see her do that here. Perhaps she’s saving it up for the end of her series so that she can give us all of her research to rally us together into a frothing mob, but as Regina said in the episode, it’s really bothersome to have her try to get us worked up over the tropes and sexism in the gaming industry and then not give us an outlet for our frustration and anger.

    I won’t deny that she is a culture critic … but that doesn’t excuse her from criticizing only the points that she deems relevant without taking into account other factors that don’t support her cause. This has a huge impact on how we can look at her arguments.

    I also don’t believe that any of us would disagree that the Damsel in Distress, Woman in the Refrigerator and other tropes are lazy. Of course they are. That’s why they’re used so often. We were saying (at least in my interpretation) that there is generally more effort put into the stories about men, so they’re viewed as being better, more entertaining; less effort is put into the stories about women, so they’re sloppy, clichéd and still made to be about men but through the ‘whiny, superficial, catty’ perspective of women, and are therefore viewed as inferior and annoying. That is a huge problem with games, movies, television, books and any other media that one could think of. We don’t like it any more than you do. The root of this problem is the way that screenwriters (who are much more likely to be men than women) write women in the media we consume because of the sexism they have internalized from our culture. They don’t know how to write proper female characters. Until they can learn to do it, we’ll be stuck with these tropes. People like Anita are attempting to educate both the creators and the consumers about these issues, but in Anita’s case, it’s falling shy of the mark because of her bias and the way she presents her research.

    In contrast to Regina, I would absolutely love to be able to play more female characters. I love playing Chell in the Portal series, for example, but it almost doesn’t count because it’s a) a first-person game and b) Chell is mute, which some could argue as being a more creative way of ‘silencing’ women in games, so the game raaaarely reminds you that you're playing a woman; I can play a female in Skyrim; I could be a female leader of my own country in Civilization; I could be Lara Croft in Tomb Raider … and I’m already running out of female playable characters that come to mind. Isn’t it sad? To me, sometimes it does matter whether I play a male or female character, and it always matters when women specifically are being treated with blatant disregard and misogyny in a game or a movie. That’s why I won’t buy certain games or watch certain movies, and that’s why I write about these things; it’s doing something proactive about the problem rather than being passive (‘not voting’).

    We should be able to have great mechanics, great stories and great female characters all in the same game. That’s something that (ahem) everyone on this site wants. Sadly, it’s still beyond our reach. And that’s why we’re angry.

    Sorry for the novel.

  4. I really liked a lot of what was said in this episode, but I did have one big issue and hypothesis for reaction.

    First, my big issue. I have a big issue with a comment at Ms. Olgelsby made during the episode. I don't have the exact quote but it was something to the effect that women bring peace and logic to a community and that men bring other things. In my view this is exactly the kind of stereotyping that is a font of gender conflict and is problematic on two fronts. Firstly this stereotype denies men the capability to be peaceful and logical, which I find highly offensive as a peaceful, logical man. Secondly, and more insidiously, it denies women the capability to express "negative" emotions and open conflict, which I find just as offensive. Women are just as capable of being non-peaceful and illogical as men and that is a good thing. There is a great discussion of the downside of this stereotype on women in the book "Odd Girl Out" by Rachel Simmons about the subtle and secretive style of bullying practiced by women in American elementary, middle, and high schools at least partially of stereotypes like this and the expectation that they be "good girls".

    Second, a hypothetical – more and more games allow for some degree of customization of the protagonist avatar, so what if before the plot started you could also select the gender at least of the antagonist, love interest(s), and mcguffin-in-distress? Not only could this work against the damsel-in-distress trope slightly, it could provide for replay ability and achievement fodder for trying the options much as in Civilization V you can gain achievements for winning via different win criteria or as different leaders.

  5. Joshua:
    I completely agree with you. It was a huge generalization and exactly what we were accusing Anita of–I had a preconceived idea about gender differences and was trying to force my argument to agree with it. After speaking with my friend Dr. Sandi Glahn, I realized there are many characteristics I tend to categorize as uniquely male or female. It was a wonderful check on my thinking.
    I love your hypothesis about selecting gender for the antagonist and I don't think I've ever heard anyone propose it before. Great idea.
    Thanks so much for contributing, Joshua.

  6. Hi! Just wanted to say I really enjoyed listening to your podcast and really appreciated hearing my own thoughts reflected in your conversation regarding the approach of the tropes videos. I have felt over the past 5 – 10 years the technical quality of videogames story telling potential has been a huge plus and simultaneous minus in that it makes the poorer told stories in gaming really stand out from the well written ones. Absolutely loved the last of us and tomb raider 2013 and for me the genders of the characters I played bore no impact on my enjoyment. Gaming like books, film and TV is escapism not therapy! Lol'd when I heard that.

  7. Hi George,

    Thank you for your feedback and positive comments. So funny that I was just talking about this episode to a student yesterday and how I was surprised we didn't get more feedback on it. I am delighted that our older episodes still hold up! 🙂

    I think you are correct about the impact of better visuals on story telling in game. When we lived in a true 8-bit world (not a retro one) we were satisfied with just being able to play something more complex than Pong. Now, games need to mature in story telling the way the graphics have matured with new consoles and improved gaming PCs. I think The Last of Us and Tomb Raider are good examples of the positive direction we are headed in.

    Thanks for listening!

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