Put your gloves on gamers, we got a cause to fight.
On Monday, I did a brief analysis on Anita Sarkeesian’s recent video series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games. This is a multi-part series, outlining some of gaming’s more problematic dealings, in their portrayal of women in video games. Miss Sarkeesian’s mission statement as follows: “The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective.”
So while there is fun to be had in the analysis (we are talking about and playing video games mind you), the subject matter we are dealing with shouldn’t be taken so. This is an honest look, at where games have come from, and where they should go, in moving forward with a positive reinforcement of females as a whole. This “gender thing” is a a 50/50 split of the human race down the middle. You’d think we’d see a wider spread of equality in this cause and effect, and why we do not confuses me so. Sometimes, a simple problem is so baffling, it just makes you ask “What?” out loud.
For any of you who need a little more background moving forward, part one of my own critique can be found here, and the first video in the series is again, linked here…with a shout out to her other videos giving more insight to her background…here
In my first article, I focused more so on Anita’s earlier example of Crystal, from Star Fox Adventures. In her video, Anita observes how the situation of the game went from bad to worse, with Crystal initially being a kick ass hero the game was centered around, to being dis-empowered through role reduction as “Damsel in Distress”. This happened due to poor management and mis-guided game development. What we ended up with, changed the entire focus of the game to a male centric one, with the hero becoming Fox McCloud. The story even revolves around Fox saving Crystal, which as Anita points out, is insult to injury. The “Damsel in Distress” trope, is the major focus of the first video, and the Star Fox Adventures example does frame her argument well. The framing is how easily female roles are reduced to a lazy plot device, which involves placing the woman into a basic necessity of needing to be saved, rescued, or generally “achieved”.
While I believe Anita’s point was sound, I pointed out one basic truth. This game had a hard time getting made, period. From the design of the title, to it’s out of focus goals, the game had a major identity crisis, and one that drastically effected all portions of the game. As a simple reminder, my intent was not of contradiction to the unfortunate demise of Crystal as a meaningful character. I simply tried to provide the insight that this game had trouble just being fun, let alone handling social subtext with any kind of proper grace.
Though, I did further surrender to Miss Sarkeesian’s better judgement, by speculating that the title might have turned out alright, had Rare gone with their initial plan to not take focus off of Crystal in the first place. My last point presented is best surmised in this quotation “If a game sucks to begin with, no one is going to be playing it, anyways, and any positive social imagery is lost among the poor quality.” A sad fate to be sure, but one that segways into a big problem much harder to swallow.
I’m talking of course, about Anita’s main focus in the trope of “Damsel in Distress”, and that is the lovely princess of the Mushroom Kingdom, Princess Toadstool.
I move from one female character to another, with a grim realization. While Star Fox Adventures doesn’t get a pass for betraying Crystal as a worth while character, it can hide behind the rationalized guise of poor quality. Moving forward onto Anita’s views upon The Mushroom Kingdom, and the Mario series in general, what happens when we look at a game series that is widely regarded as one of the best? One with no real issues to hide behind?
In Anita’s lead up to dealing with Peach, she further outlines some history of how the trope “Damsel in Distress” persisted to be. She goes back a bit further than just the first Super Mario Bros, to predate Peach entirely. This helps gives the uninformed more back ground of how the trope existed in games even earlier than those found on the original Nintendo. In doing so, she focuses on the important lead up to the whole Mario Madness and his roots, as we go beyond The Mushroom Kingdom, when there was no “Super” to speak of. Just a man, a monkey, and a plan.
The plan’s name was Pauline.
She outlines, to the uninformed, how Donkey Kong received staunch influence from two major sources, the original King Kong, and Popeye the Sailor Man. As the only object of the game of DK, entails leading Mario (Jump Man) up to save Pauline from the one true bastard monkey, the King Kong inspiration is quite obvious. Popeye plays role in this scheme, even beyond just the similar story markings of the brutish Pluto capturing Olive Oyl in the same fashion. The original purpose of Shigeru Miyamoto’s team in creating DK, was actually in using a Popeye license for a fun Nintendo arcade title. The license fell through, and Nintendo was left with little choice but to improvise.
Trying to ignore the strong design elements of the core game play in the arcade title, I re-focus my thoughts on what Anita goes on to explain. This, in essence, is how the success of DK, gave way to a similarly successful blue print for the Mario games. This in turn, gave way to the quintessential Damsel in Distress, Peach, and the endless repetition in which she is devalued as a character through objectification, time and time again.
Miss Sarkeesian uses the basic premise of Peach being captured by Bowser in the Mario games, and relates the event to the “Subject Object Dichotomy”. She explains in rather simple terms that the subject acts, and the object is acted upon. You can she how this relates to Peach, as she is always the object acted upon, and is never imbued with any further sense of meaning. The subject is almost always the (very typically) male protagonist, and how he strengthens his own character, through the weakness of the female. In this case, Mario gains worth by Peach having none. Anita further mentions this as problematic, as it often reduces the females role (ala Peach) as a prize to be won, a treasure to be found, or a goal to be achieved.
They cease to become a defined personality, and swiftly transform into an object.
Anita helps to frame the bigger problem video games had from the get go, and one they’ve been trying to chase after for decades now: Interesting Story Telling. While, for length purposes, we will not get into the number of titles that have helped to redefine narrative in video games, the Damsel in Distress trope is still a popular choice. This is with obvious mention that due to Mario’s popularity, an entire generation was defined by his adventure, in turn influencing an obscene amount of imitators with the Damsel in Distress trope. While many of these titles, like DK, may have some excellent design theory, they do help to reinforce the negative standard Anita bemoans, and one that reminds us of some of the damaging and out dated stereotypes we still cling to in today’s society, even in the fictional.
I speak of the valueless role the female regularly plays in video games, as helpless captive, or living ornaments for one of her male counter parts. These twisted perceptions only help to alienate half of the population, and further damage the repoire of video games in their worst scenarios. All of these small nods help to keep alive these hateful pretenses, the ones of females either being weak, or worthless all together, which is sexism at it’s more inflamed. Appreciating the phrase “All in the Small”, should help remind you how interconnected everything can be, and how these minor examples of “no big deal”…several hundred times over, can surmount to a wider spread issue. One that can not easily be stopped single handedly, by a surly plumber and his trusty steed.
So, where does this lead us? Anita, through being a gamer herself, looked upon the unavoidable truth, that the “Damsel in Distress” trope was one of the most used and over abused tropes in 80’s video games. It exists today, due in part to the wide spread mass of success, and it all started with the patriarchal game of ball that Bowser and Mario play using Peach on a frequent basis.While my defense of Star Fox Adventures was a more reasoned aside as far as all of the troubles the game had, Mario can’t claim the same ineffeciencies. We’re talking about one of the biggest names in video games, and a franchise that Nintendo considers it’s bread and butter. While resting on tradition is important, you have to examine of who it’s important to. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you’re more than comfortable taking Peach’s role into a more serious light, rather than just discounting it as childs play, of which she is normally considered.
So, with all of this in mind, where do I stand in defense of any of this?
Allow me to elaborate.
I agree with Miss Sarkeesian, that at this point in time, Nintendo could very easily change up the formula to incorporate different motivating story elements for the Mario series, without hurting the pedigree. This was after mindful time and experience that had been acquired by the developers, however. This mass of impressive tech and experience didn’t always exist, and I’m forced to be reminded of how young video games were back in the 80’s. At least in defense of video games in the 80’s, the medium had barely grown up past the state of toddler, so it’s meanings and messages were intrinsically so. Even speaking from a technological standpoint, the systems on hand were extremely limited, with barely any memory or processing power to speak of. Earlier titles had trouble even making characters distinguishable, one famous anecdote involving Miyamoto (Mario’s Creator) “giving Mario a large nose and a mustache, which avoided the need to draw a mouth.”
Does this preclude Anita’s point? Not at all, her message is meaningful, and reason enough for me to write these articles to spread the good word. I reframe that while this was once so, we now have more power, wisdom, and courage, to finally change the paradigm into the meaningful.
In looking back at least in the context of the industries youthful indiscretions, I continue to provide a sense with “The Why of Gaming”, in explaining the pros that led to the cons. In essence, and is the root problem with a lot of sexism, the bulk of proprietors are of male persuasion, and a variety of creative images will be made in what they know best; themselves. Also, based on Miyamoto’s musings, giving Mario any noticeable features was going to be problematic enough. Imagine how long their laundry list of similarly astounding “mouth problems” existed, before realizing one of the only three characters in the game barely moved.
Someone barely moving isn’t just a gender problem, it’s a human problem, and an all around shit place to be in.
My first point looks to severe system limitations, giving way to their male creators needs and failings from the get go. My second defense looks to dudes of a greedy persuasion, devoid of intellectual merit. As with a lot of business, DK made money, and many saw an easy way out. Thusly, the “Damsel in Distress” trope came to be an easy ticket to success, with many other creators making games after Donkey Kong, taking for granted their advantages with mouth making capabilities. Subsequently, they rested on their laurels by carbon copying an over used story for small financial gain, without any further thought put into it. They effectively glazed over any social damage being done, whether it be through poor female representation, or just trash product flooding an already over saturated market. These two huge issues have regularly led to several scale catastrophes with major repercussions. In this case, a painful series of memetics that led to an influx of poor product, and exacerbating poor ethics in treating both sexes with equal fervor.
So, believe me Anita, this kind of recycled crap doesn’t just negatively effect women, it ends up effecting all gamers. In turn, no one really benefits.
With all of this in mind, the “Why of Gaming” in this case concludes to a single point as to the persistence of “The Damsel in Distress”: immaturity. The basis of the rebirth after the crash of video games in the early 80’s led to this vortex of chaos, biding it’s time till a worthy savior came to be. Super Mario Bros, in almost every way, fit the bill perfectly. The one sad oversight was the unintentionally powerful hand off of the “Damsel in Distress” trope. Since business will always look for the quickest dollar, the devs came in droves, and relentlessly ripped off a proven success. In essence, Peach is the tradition, and became thusly so for video games. In the case of Cyrstal (from Star Fox Adventures), we saw the long after residual effects of this existing, and Crystal represented the cause and effect, the very same that Peach helped to cement.
So, if Crystal represents the where we still go wrong in gaming, Peach represents the when we went wrong in gaming.
Anita is dead on in looking back with grimace and realizing , as I have, our roots aren’t an entirely glorious place, and we have the power to change it all in the now. The one small hang up, exists within the mass stubbornness that is the human race, and this idiotic back to basics shtick that is sometimes destructively convenient.
As stated at the beginning of the article, Anita examines these female characters from a wide spread, systemic big picture stand point. In this way, examining the more infantile nature of where the industry was 30 years ago, helps to provide more insight into why these traditions came to be through minor flaws, and how deeply ingrained they really are.
My mention with”The Why of Gaming”, hopefully goes a step beyond Anita merely observing these instances of sexism, by not only noticing the events and declaring “this is so”, but by going a step further and presenting the other question as “why is so?” These are weighted issues, with a lot of angles, and if Anita’s point is to carry water, I feel more than happy to help in hydrating the crowd.
So, Peach remains to be The perpetual “Damsel in Distress”, as some kind of sick satire of groundhogs day. One where Peach is doomed to repeat herself, by following the same unfufilling ground rules that she initially created…(Or Nintendo, in a more direct blame). As Anita points out, the one true time Peach is a selectable character, she is a blast to play as, and helps round out the cast of likeable characters, with an equally valuable addition. Which, aptly enough, does quite well to foreshadow the last round of my final analysis of the “Damsel in Distress” trope, and how there is still light at the end of the video game tunnel of equality.
I now mark the end of Round 2, in a 3 part bout of wild furies. My last write up, will deal with Anita’s mention of Zelda in her usage as the trope, and will dive into the semantics of why a character can fall prey to a tired cliche, without embodying it fully.
Departing now, I only recant my reaffirm my appreciation Miss Sarkeesian has for enjoying media in meaningful ways, while still being critical of it’s more problematic aspects. My own recent endeavors dubbed “The After Party” involved giving a harsh second look at a portion of video games that, I was very excited for. Not to troll, not to prove I’m right, not out of boredom. I truly care about this medium, and the treatment gamers receive in the efforts of it’s enjoyment. In very much the same way, Anita care’s about a fair share, and wanting the same for ladies the world over. This important reflection helps us all to appreciate one another, and give more value to who we are as a thinking body.The second we stop questioning what we are doing, we cease to exist, and continue to just save The Princess.
After all of these years, we’ve learned that the princess is in another castle…
…but she doesn’t have to be.