The Sarkeesian Trope - bombstopper Blog -
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The Sarkeesian Trope


For those that do not know what I am referencing with the title, I am at the very least sure you have remotely heard about the outrage that was caused on Kickstarter. Anita Sarkeesian wanted to produce a web-series on the portrayal of women in video games from a more academic and intensive look, and asked for what I would call a modest budget (6,000$) but ended up receiving over 150,000$. This caused a massive nerd uproar that could only bring about the internet's best qualities: sexism, hate, and slander.

Now I in no way would consider myself a sexist, although probably like many people, am ok with the occasional raunchy joke (although some certainly cross a line) and off-hand remark by common people. That is not to say that I take the issue lightly or can see comments by others, especially those that are representatives of something larger than themselves), as always being in the clear. So when I write about this particular topic (a.k.a. Sarkeesian's videos) I will try to be the least offensive that I consider my writing to be. However, all opinions can be taken in the wrong way so we might as well dig into this thing.

Sarkeesian, as of this writing, has three videos out and each are essentially tied to the "Damsel in Distress" trope. Specifically, the first episode is an introduction; the second episode shows modern portrayals as well as introducing the girl-in-the-refrigerator sub trope, and the final commenting on the Indie game scene (and smaller games). Now this will not be an intensive look at the content of her videos, that is something that I wholly recommend individuals to watch, even if they think they might be against her opinions, because... well, that is how you can make an informed opinion of your own. However I would prefer to talk about my own problems with what I see within her argument, as well as some of the good points she does have (albeit some pats that I find a tad overlooked).

I will be honest in saying that I most recently watched her third video, and to reacquaint myself, have skimmed the first two, and so that is another reason why I feel watching the original content is in both of our best interests, if you wish to leave comments or questions as well.

So what does Sarkeesian do right? Well to start it off, in a simple means of presentation, she does a fantastic job at providing examples and then seamlessly incorporating them into her talk, all while keeping a good pace. Now this may not be important in terms of content, but this does show that the time has been taken in not only the research portion, and that consideration of the amount of funding she did receive from Kickstarter. I mean, if you only received a crappy green-screen 10-minute youtube video after donating 50$ and seeing it received 150k you would probably be a bit miffed right?

In terms of the content, I do not think that her views of sexism are extreme in any regard. The damsel in distress trope is an easy one for men to consider a problem as it presents women as a weak thing (yes more object than person), which is an increasing problem in a very patriarchal society where women are prized on good looks and considered lesser. The best example from her first video that I could recall (which had nothing to do directly from games), was a commercial from Nintendo, yes NINTENDO, for the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in which the final lines of the commercial state "Whilst thou save the girl" PAUSE "Or play like one?" Needless to say, I got the awkward "this was on tv?" vibe, being born in the 90's and growing up in Seattle where equality seemed a bit more of a given than an uphill battle.

Another good example that she brought up was the transformation of the 3D exploration Star Fox game Star Fox Adventures, where the original game's protagonist was the female sidekick in the released game. In fact, Star Fox wasn't intended for the game at all but Nintendo thought it wouldn't sell well without a familiar title attachment, and so the female lead got shafted in her own game... only to become a trope in the reformed one. Now one example that I think she uses poorly is the Doki Doki Panic game, which originally was not intended to be a Mario game but was re-skinned to include Peach and Toad and Luigi as playable characters. The reason being, is that she states Peach's inclusion was a happy accident, and not an original intent, however if you look at the original character models (which she provides) there was already a female character, so in reality her argument is void.

Now her second video I thought was more interesting because it shows how death can really affect a person's potential perception of a game. The most interesting examples were those in which the damsel asked to be killed or sacrificed herself for the hero's goal or own good. In that case the woman's rescue was the original desire, but not the end result, however in terms of this sub-trope within damsels in distress, I find that death as a character motive is on par with a damsel being captured since it both displays a gender weakness and objectivity (one just happens to be morbid which can be culturally seen as more foul, but holds the same effect).

The third on the other hand is where I began to question Sarkeesian's videos more because it brings up something that I think most society deals with. How far can a joke go before it becomes too real? Or too offensive? The premise of the third video looks at smaller games, but more so at the ironic and satirical aspect that these games often borrow from the older titles that inspired them. Some being self-referential and others acknowledging the absurdity of women's roles in games (such as Earthworm Jim's Princess what's her name character). The one example that specifically started this was her attack on Spelunky, which has the mechanic where you literally save a damsel. Now this damsel can be a busty female, an adorable dog, or a practically birthday suit hunk of a man. This began her tangent on the captured man in games and the difference it implies. Now while I see the point she is trying to make, women being captured does not bring about the same connotation as a captured man, however she implies that there is no impact on the male psyche by such a scenario.

Women in society have been created to be a cherished source of innocence and weakness, and men have been seen as the powerful protective force. I think it to actually be a fun twist for the woman to save the man, but to say that men are not affected by such a scene would be incorrect. Some men (I would probably include myself), are not super strong nor have that opinion of themselves, and are absolutely tired of the assumption that our gender is supposed to be some end all solution. To assume that man is to fix every problem or to assume that we assume a super-human like, infallible fantasy is just wrong. Men suffer from social stereotypes just as much as women do, and her argument on the man in distress trope is that we suffer from none, and so the message is essentially a lost story opportunity.

My true disappointment (which may very well be fixed by her next video), is that Sarkeesian's argument seems so overtly opinionated and too feminist, that it gives off the kind of stench that none of these games have any sort of merit. That if any game uses these kinds of storytelling methods (which is what they, I would like to believe, are intentionally created and used for) then they should be cast off as some kind of sexist product. Now while I'm sure she is rational and wouldn't say that, she also has not NOT said it. Instead she provides an example of a story she deems acceptable, yet does also not provide any advice as to what could be changed to make future games either be more respectful of the trope, or what can be done to mitigate the amount of games with this a their prominent aspect. I think it is childish to think this method of storytelling will ever go away (Disney anyone?) but just like how Disney can create more respectable female protagonists, I too think games will find their own stride in telling creative and unique stories (especially as more women play games and make games). It has always been a question of when, not if, and Sarkeesian, while informative, seems to be using more emotion than objectivity in her videos (at the very least in her syntax and tone if not some of her material).

Keep making/playing games people, because it may be an art form, but it's also a buyer's economy.