It can’t be denied that there a lot of video games out there that are unkind towards women. There are lots of games with good women too — well-rounded characters that exist beyond a simple goal to be obtained. Princess Peach is not one of them.
She has a presence in nearly every Mario game, but when she’s not a simple option for Mario Kart or placeholder, she’s simpering in a castle. Rosalina has more personality than her. She wasn’t even in the first New Super Mario Bros, and games where she has been playable and fleshed-out… have their flaws.
But if she was in Punch-Out, what would that mean? Is it feminist? Anti-feminist? I almost regret it not being included because the analysts would have a field day with that one, all for some silly in-game bonus. The equivalent of Marvel’s post-credits scenes.
Now on one hand, we’re clearly dealing with a man punching a woman. And there’s no doubt that, traditionally and visually, this is an unfair fight. A well-trained boxer versus a twiggy-armed princess. No count. One punch would cause a concussion.
On the other hand, this isn’t real life. This is a video game. Besides Princess Peach, you’re also fighting a flamenco dancer, a literal “turban-head” from India who wears Bengal tiger pants, a Russian who is LITERALLY chugging a bottle of vodka in his corner, and an obese island king who may or may not be totally human. Like Insane Clown Posse, you would have to be a moron to take this seriously. It’s cartoon violence.
But it’s still violence. And none of these characters are women. This is Nintendo. Not Mortal Kombat, not Tekken, not even Street Fighter. Any fighting females are doing it with parasols and frying pans against turtles and mushrooms*. You would NEVER see Princess Toadstool strapping on a set of boxing gloves. It’s not her identity. Which is probably another reason the feature was cut.
I’m hoping the real version would have had less cleavage than this. Not practical. Ask Ronda Rousey.
But when I think of the weirdness and novelty of competing with Princess Peach, I feel a small pang of regret for what could have been. When I think of what kind of girlish squeals she’d make (see Mario Power Tennis) or her twiggy arms power-punching, I can’t help but smile. And that’s right — I said “competing”. It’s not just a Grand Theft Auto-style beatdown. You’re on equal footing in a sports arena. In fact, moreso, because she would be a bonus character. A challenge.
The idea/theme of Punch-Out is that these characters are stronger than you. You’re a little guy taking on giant Turks and ‘roided out Dwayne “The Rock” Johnsons. And you beat them. That’s the charm of Punch-Out. But that charm is not present with Princess Peach. It is with Donkey Kong, which is why he fits.
There is truth to the fact that, by law of averages (for very wide definitions of average) men have more upper body strength. Which by some odd corollary translates to “all women are weaker”. In honorable fighting situations, that makes sense. But sometimes, it’s against moral code for any manly heroes to fight someone weaker. So it’s up to the woman to take out her equal, toe to toe. While warriors on both sides to sit back and watch the “catfight”.
But this is a video game. And in nearly every video game, it’s you against the world. Everyone else, whether by virtue of strength, magic, or number, is stronger than you. And it’s your job to rise from underdog to champion. The human can think beyond logic, so programmers give all video game opponents an unfair advantage. If Princess Peach is one of those opponents, does that not make it fair? Does that not make gender an irrelevant issue?
I wonder Sarkeesian would say about that.
*Some exceptions, like Samus Aran and Super Smash Brothers, may apply. But Samus is wearing a genderless, identity-less power suit, and the other is the digital equivalent of smashing toys together.
Anita Sarkeesian’s latest video and GamerGate have caused quite a stir. To me it sounds like a lot of sound and fury over nothing. The Internet is more worried about “ethics in games journalism“ while ISIS, ebola, and elections are going on in the real word. More celebrities taking the time to make a comment on its presence (like Tim Schafer and Joss Whedon and John Scalzi and Stephen Baldwin) and people backlashing “how could you”s back.
Here’s the thing: I don’t get what people are afraid of. Are games going to change? Get deregulated? Censored? Nerfed? The answer is no.
Don’t worry, guys. All the God of Wars, Saints Rows, Watch Dogses, they’re not going anywhere. They make money. Money rules the world. If there are more “female” games, fine. That doesn’t take away from the big sellers. No one’s going to stop making mega-million disasters like Destiny because someone made Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Games like Destiny are “safe” because all their gameplay elements are things that people are used to — squad-based shooters, Capture the Flag-type missions, upgradable implements, and skill trees. Nothing new, nothing challenging.
Companies care about market trends, demographics, and what people buy. As long as people keep buying Gears of War and Call of Duty, nothing anyone does is going to affect anything. Nothing what 4Chan says, not all the death threats, not all the Twitter wars. No one’s going to take away anything from you. Anita Sarkeesian could make a hundred videos and they could all be true. True enough to hurt. You’ll still have a new Hitman game to play, gun-toting nuns and all. Nothing anyone says is going to make a difference…
But some boy or girl, eight or nine, maybe twelve to fourteen, is watching these videos. And they’re recognizing the trends & tropes in what’s on the market today, rejecting them ball-in-hand. They didn’t grow up with princesses in other castles, so they can see when the thing that’s wrong is wrong. They have no comforting history to reinforce it.
And that boy or girl is going to grow up and make games. Better games, fantastic games, games that shift the paradigm. They’re going to become a video game producer — the next Shigeru Miyamoto or Sid Meier. And you won’t even notice because it’ll be thirty years from now, and you’ll be more concerned with your prostate than the new Battlefield.
They’re just games. They’re not worth killing for.
Oh look, Anita Sarkeesian made a new video. That only took her, what, two months and twenty-one days? And she’s got 12 videos to make? Fantastic. At this rate, she’ll be done by November 2015. Good investment for all those kickstarter contributors.
I feel like I should offer a critique like I did before, but I actually have fewer bones to pick with this one. The same issues I had with the last video remain. Like cherry-picking data — she’s starting with her point and then finding just the evidence that proves it. She doesn’t consider the medium as a whole. If you only use movies like “A Serbian Tale” and “The Human Centipede”, of course you’re going to have a skewed view of patterns in the medium.
If I wanted to, I could make a great case about the representation of fathers vs. mothers in the same medium. We’re vilified as being incompetent, evil, or unnecessary. Any movie about fatherhood is either “Daddy Day Care” or “Taken“. But I won’t because I’m already playing on the easiest level.
Then there’s the failure to take into consideration the culture of origin for the games, i.e., Japan vs. America. Japan is not great with its feminism in the first place. They value style over substance. They don’t make many original stories or take creative risks. “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down”. Just look at the Final Fantasy or Godzilla.
Then there’s knowing the audience. A dark and gritty game centered on violence/combat as the chief mechanic is going to cater to males. Nuff said. Video game companies do not make these with women in mind. Women simply are not the market for those games. I’m not saying women don’t like those games. But their dark and gritty tends more towards Jacqueline Carey, Mira Grant, The Hunger Games, or various animes.
And that’s what she’s focusing on today. Instead of looking at any game from 2001-2013 that’s sexist, she focuses on those “dark and gritty” games like The Darkness, Castlevania, and Shadows of the Damned. The damsel in distress has become the damsel stuffed in the refrigerator.
She did sum up the problem nicely. You give the protagonist a revenge motivation at the start or a savior motivation to work towards. It’s a common way to heighten dramatic tension when the “damsel in distress” has been done to death. You simply up the stakes. Not only is she kidnapped, but she’s dead. Not only is she dead, but her soul is trapped in limbo. Not only is her soul trapped in limbo, but it’s become fused to a demon. Not only is she fused to a demon, but the only way to kill the demon is to kill her.
This makes it seem like the violence is for her own good, which is a common rationalization for violence against women. And sometimes it’s the only way to “win”. It’s strange that even in this time of advanced games, mechanics and player choice, there are still games that don’t allow you to move forward unless you pull a trigger. When you look at each individual instance, each game, it’s not as meaningful. But multiple games together you see the common threads.
Side note: I love how when she’s talking about Bionic Commando she first: totally spoils it (thanks for the warning Anita — thank god you didn’t mention Bioshock: Infinite), and second: fake laughs when she says that your departed wife is the central AI in your bionic arm. Lady, if that’s what makes you lose your shit, you haven’t begun to scratch the surface of real geek culture.
My main issue is that I don’t really see a way around it. Female disempowerment goes hand in hand with dark and gritty. It doesn’t necessarily have to, like in “Sin City” or Spawn. But for every Angela, there’s a Wanda Blake. For every Miho, there’s a Nancy.
The other thing is this is not so much violence or victimization of women, but lazy writing. These are all games where the only way to express anything is with a gun. And the only way to express love through a gun would be a mercy killing. I don’t believe it causes violence against women, as Sarkeesian seems to imply, but treating a symptom doesn’t cure the disease. No one goes out and beats women because they saw it in a video game. The same reason no one goes and shoots up a school because of a video game. (for more, see this)
If you play nothing but games like Infamous, Grand Theft Auto, Gears of War, and Dante’s Inferno, will you get desensitized to it? Yes. But if you are victimizing women, there was something wrong in the first place. Video games like these are part escapist fantasy and part effects of the issue, not the causes.
By the way, it was about 6:25 when she first mentioned God of War. Although it wasn’t in the sense I thought she would. Come on, you missed the multiple gratuitous sex scenes and Pandora’s sacrifice? Anita, you’re dropping the ball.
I feel like I gotta get this off my chest, because it’s been on my mind lately. (Don’t you love blog posts about stuff that happened weeks ago?)
First some backstory you already know. Anita Sarkeesian has done a lot of YouTube videos, most notably stuff relating to feminism. I respected her views — I learned a lot about the Bechdel test, on how it’s best applied (as in not per movie, but on a less-than-scientific global/informal level). She made sound points. She seemed intelligent.
She made a Kickstarter to do a series about women and/in video games. For some reason, this drew down the thunder of the Internet gods, a pantheon of good and evil alike. Some gnashed their teeth, some jumped to her defense. Both sides went to battle. The result brought her campaign to front-page notoriety. In the end, she made her goal quite quickly.
Eight months later…
The first video comes out: “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games-Damsel in Distress“. The Internet watches with hungry eyes, eager to see what she’s done in the aftermath of the hoopla. And those eyes are even more hungry because she’s going to talk about video games, a subject near and dear to many of our hearts.
I wonder why she chose to single out video games for her topic. It’s a medium that’s got a long sordid history of misogyny, true. But it’s getting better. And movies, TV, literature, web comics, comic books, RPGs can be just as bad.
First, a prologue. If I’m going to discuss this, I’ve got to make sure I criticize the right things: the content. I’m not going to talk about her appearance, her legitimacy as a video gamer based on a photo. The point of feminism is allowing females to do whatever they want to do(1). If they want to wear big hoopy earrings, who cares. And I won’t talk about contradictions in her thesis. It does concern me, but she has the right to change her mind. And I’m only concerned about the information presented in this single video.
Second, I don’t want to have to talk about this, but it bugs me: the Kickstarter. Sarkeesian needed $6,000 to make these videos. She got $159,000 — almost 400% more than what she needed. And during the time between the end of her Kickstarter and the beginning of March, there was very little word.
Some people think she took the money and ran. Some people thought she could do whatever she wanted with the money. Some people thought she didn’t need a Kickstarter for doing what she’s been doing for free all this time. Some people said that there’s nothing wrong with getting paid for your work.
I fall somewhere in the middle. A contribution is just that. If you give money to a homeless guy, you have no say in what he does with the money. You hope that he uses it to get back on his feet, or get something to eat. But it’s just as likely he spends it on crack. I like to think Sarkeesian is more professional than that.
I think when you contribute to a Kickstarter — one with a particular goal — that money should be used just towards that goal (plus or minus expenses). It’s a bit of a contract: I give you money with the expectation of seeing the final product you produce. Not to feed your family or fund your lecturing tours (I’m not saying that Sarkeesian is doing this).
But I wonder what she did during those eight months, because this video doesn’t seem very different from her others. I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t made her goal — could she have made the videos anyway?
I wish Kickstarter would set a cap on funds you receive, some kind of max cut-off. Because I think getting over-funded tends to backfire, and creates controversy where there is none (case in point). I think if she was more transparent with her plans — more updates, a video schedule, topics — it would go further towards legitimizing this project (not that she isn’t legitimate already). In fact, I wasn’t going to make this post until her second video, but it’s been so long…
Okay, now to the video proper. As one should do in any criticism, let’s start with the good points. I like how she explains the roots of the trope in video games. I knew about Greek myths and the monkey-kidnapping trope and Popeye leading to Donkey Kong and princesses in peril, but I never put it all together. Especially with how Donkey Kong served as the granddaddy for protagonist-antagonist driven video games.
I like her disclaimer that you can still like something while still being critical of it. No work is perfect. That’s something even I have trouble reconciling. However, I think if you’re going to present something in a critical light, you need to admit when things are both good and bad. Even Spoony admitted that the concert scene in FFX-2 was really good.
All right, that’s all I can think of. Now on to the negative.
1) THE TITLE: The first thing I see is that the actual title is “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games”. First, why “versus”? Why is Sarkeesian pitting tropes against women? Tropes are simply story-telling elements that appear with enough frequency to be identified. They’re not inherently bad. A better title might be “Tropes AND Women” or “Tropes WITH Women” or “Tropes OF Women”. By using “vs.”, she’s creating conflict where there is none. It’s unnecessarily incendiary.
2) THE LAUNDRY LIST: My main complaint with the video, as a whole, is that this is just a laundry list. Most of the time, she’s iterating through the many video games that feature a damsel in distress, concentrating on the Mario and Zelda series. A series that comes from one company, one creator (Shigeru Miyamoto).
If she’s not doing that, she’s listing off games from the ’80’s and 90’s with the all the in-depthness of Wikipedia. I feel like she just went to TvTropes.com for her information. This makes me uncertain of her level of expertise in this medium, as well as her knowledge of the games she selected. Which leads into…
3) CHERRY-PICKING INFORMATION: The very first point she opens with is Star Fox Adventures. Sarkeesian complains that Nintendo took out a “strong female character” (her opinion) and replaced it with a boy.
No. They replaced it with Star Fox, a recognizable name, a recognizable license. Licensing is Nintendo’s bread-and-butter, and they change things all the time. Kirby’s Epic Yarn had Prince Fluff as the main character. Doki Doki Panic became Super Mario Bros. 2 for internationalization (more on that later).
Sarkeesian says that this “strong female character”‘s game, Dinosaur Planet (N64), never got released. No. It got changed, then released, as Star Fox Adventures, a launch game for the GameCube.
Sarkeesian implies that they changed the main character because she was a woman. Does she think the developers said “This game is great, but no one will play a game with a woman as the main character” or “We can get more sales, especially for a launch title, if we change the main character into someone recognizable.” I guess we’ll never know. (To close the history, the game scored moderately well, especially in Japan, but got criticized for not being a true Star Fox game. All subsequent sequels did not Star Fox Adventure‘s format.)(2).
(2) I never played Star Fox Adventures so take everything I say with a grain of salt.
Every other game she talks about are accompanied by fleeting screenshots, many of which I couldn’t recognize. There’s no discourse beyond “this game has a damsel in distress”. She makes a point of mentioning Dragon’s Lair with its “ditzy Princess Daphne” being ported to so many systems. Dude, just because it gets ported to every system doesn’t mean it’s a popular game. It means the company wants money. It also doesn’t mean it was a good game.
When she talks about Mario, she makes sure to specify the problems with the CORE SERIES. Well, duh, of course the core series isn’t going to deviate from a traditional formula. That’s why it’s called the core series. Star Trek 11 isn’t going to take place with the Klingons, where Kirk and Spock are bit characters. And furthermore, why don’t the Spin-Offs count? Many of those games are just as popular, if not more, than some of the core series games (Super Mario RPG, Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart, Mario Party).
Sarkeesian calls Peach “accidentally playable” in Super Mario Bros. 2, because it was a conversion of Doki Doki Panic. So she calls that “not a good example” of averting the Damsel in Distress trope. Except that Doki Doki Panic originally featured two female characters, so that completely contradicts your point, Anita. And no, they could not just have easily had Bowser in that role, because the sprites wouldn’t have matched. Part of video game design is working with your limitations. Heck, the reason Mario has a mustache was because there wasn’t enough pixels to show a mouth.
When she talks about the Zelda series, there are some points I have to concede to (see my review of Skyward Sword) about Zelda’s history of portrayals. But she completely neglects Twilight Princess. Zelda may have been trapped in a tower for most of the plot, but she does demonstrate some instrumentality. When the forces of the Twilight Realm invade her hall, and she sees the awesome power of King Zant wipe her soldiers out, she surrenders her kingdom. That takes balls.
Sarkeesian also conveniently forgets to mention all the other female characters in the Zelda series: Malon, Ruto, Saria, Nabooru, Impa, Romani and Cremia, Anju, Medli, Midna, Telma, Agitha. I think the LoZ games have been very diverse in gender.
Last, she completely neglects any positive portrayals of females in video games, ones who aren’t damsels. She seems to be keeping to the SNES era and prior, so the examples are few and far between. But they are there, like Metroid, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter II, Chrono Trigger, Castlevania, Ms. Pac-Man. She says there’ll be more in part 2, but I don’t see why they can’t be mentioned now.
4) NO INVESTIGATION: All throughout this laundry list, Sarkeesian never mentions once WHY the “princess in peril” is so common in video games, especially early ones. Maybe because it’s so simple, she didn’t feel the need to mention it, but I will.
Video games are targeted at white male adolescents.
They always have been, they always will (to some degree). And especially during the ’80’s and ’90’s. They have the most disposable income. And any video game aimed directly at girls is ill-fated (e.g., Barbie games and Purple Moon). When it comes down to it, video games are a commerical venture, just like movies and books.
Companies create these works of entertainment to make money, not art. Art doesn’t make a profit. Sure some games are exploring new visual mediums, experimental styles, but to paraphrase John Scalzi “If you’re not a commercial [creator] to some extent, very few people will know whether your [creation] is any good or not.”
There are secondary reasons too. Most games in this era were made in Japan, where females have been extremely disenfranchised until recent years. Also, early video games had limited resources. Stories were written out in the accompanying manual.
Before Donkey Kong, games were like Defender, Space Invaders, and Asteroids. They didn’t even have characters. (Although Extra Credits had a nice analysis of the Missile Command “narrative”.) If you could push in a storyline, you automatically received kudos. And the best games never eschewed gameplay for story.
So what’s the simplest storyline to put in without a lot of hoopla? Damsel in distress. Same reason most games are combat-based and contain amnesia: it’s easy and exciting.
Sarkeesian’s statements imply that the purpose of these video games is to shut women down. They keep getting kidnapped, and that removes the power from them. When men are kidnapped or imprisoned, it’s a brief change in gameplay or storyline. That’s the insidious thing in that, no matter how powerful these women, they always get put in a place of disempowerment where the man needs to save them.
Video games only have three types of gameplay: growth, exploration, or puzzle-solving. Most games fall under growth: getting stronger, achieving a sense of power. When Anita talks about women becoming disempowered, she neglects to mention that most often, the men are stuck in the same way. Hero Protagonist’s love has been kidnapped or the bad guy has a doomsday device or attempts some form of conquest. In any case, the bad guy has all the power, and the good guy has none. Even the underlings are stronger than you, from the bulky Abobo to the untouchable Goomba.
Until the hero sets out, and slowly gains experience and abilities over the course of his journey, until he is at a point where he can face the big bad.
5) NO QUANTITATIVE DATA: “I’ve heard it said that in the game of patriarchy, women are not the other team. They are the ball.”
Who said that, Anita? Where is your source for that quote? Where are your sources for anything? Where are you getting your data from? What are you using for research? What is your criteria? (Fun note: this quote featured a clip from Mario Sports Mix, where Peach is a playable character. See “cherry-picking”.)
Like her famous videos about the Bechdel test, this analysis employs unscientific, unmeasurable data (she even admits this). If you don’t have numbers, can you call it an analysis? It’s more of an exploration, or an editorial.
She seemed to be focusing on old school games, even though she never explicitly said so. I didn’t see a game mentioned that was past 1992, except when it was convenient, like the Mario and Zelda series. She’s missing lots of post SNES-era games, even though she mentioned those would be in the next video (what’s the over-under on how soon she mentions God of War?). Culture changes over years. This is like saying movies are racist by examining Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (hope that’s the right amount of S‘s).
So pick a date range, Anita. And then tell me how many games had plot lines. How many games had a damsel in distress? How many featured a female playable character? How many games had no male protagonist? How many games had no protagonist at all?
6) WHAT IS YOUR POINT, ANITA?: The first thing she says is that this video series will explore the role of women in video games. It will offer critical analysis and so forth. All I learned at the end of the video was there was a lot of pre-1992 games that featured a kidnapped woman as the main objective/bad guy motivation. I feel like she’s standing in front of a video screen, doing the shame-shame finger at us. She’s indicating that the video game culture is wrong for works they did 30 years ago.
I think when Sarkeesian keeps saying “disempowerment”, she really means “agency”. The boys are the ones who get to do stuff. The boys get to beat people up or jump on Goombas. Girls hardly show any power in operation or opportunity for choice. Yes, that’s a problem. But refer to my point above — games are aimed at male adolescents. Know thy audience.
Also, games don’t need to feature a female to gain female audience, and vice versa. Look at IMDB’s Top 50 Titles as rated by women. Not one succeeds the Bechdel Test until number 17 (ironically, a movie from Japan). So really, the question is, even though a lot of games don’t let you be a woman, does anyone care?
Maybe I’m not the right audience for this video. Maybe she’s aiming at an older crowd that’s not terribly savvy about video games. That might make her selection of criteria all the more devious — an attempt to misinform an ill-informed crowd — but I have no evidence of that.
And at the end of the video, I feel like I didn’t gain anything from it. It feels as vapid as Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”. Chaffing and sardonic. Full of sound of fury, but at the end, signifying nothing. I would not want to show this video to my daughters, because it’s full of misleading data and trickiness.
Now, I don’t mind that she closed comments on her YouTube video. That’s fine. I would have done that too, if I’d gotten the hate she had. And YouTube has some of the worst scum the Internet has to offer (case in point). But to give no avenue for feedback? No forum or web page? I hope she’s receiving these responses in some form. Use all that money you got to hire a comment moderator. If she doesn’t offer an opportunity for discourse, I have a hard time accepting that Anita Sarkeesian is not just a rabble-rouser pushing an agenda, no better than Michael Moore or Ann Coulter.
So like it or not, Anita Sarkeesian, you have become a figurehead for feminism. You may have come into the Internet with the same amount of power as the rest of us, but that’s changed. That means people will be shaping their beliefs based on what you do, just as a writer shapes his craft by the other writers he/she admires. That means it’s time to step up to the plate.
Oh, and here’s an excellent video about female characters in games. One that has a thesis, and provides some solutions, instead of just shaming.