by RadiumEyes, HSM team writer
What constitutes a sexist, misogynistic portrayal of women in video games?
One of the biggest questions in the gaming industry concerns the presentation of female characters; a natural extension of discourse on the subject throughout media, it raises the core difficulty facing developers today, namely the art of the female form and how it relates to the overarching cultural and social mythos.
One doesn’t have to look very far to notice why this remains a problem – the 20th century provides numerous examples from various media (including comics, advertisements and literature) of the woman as unequal in standing to the man in human societies. To give an example, an Alcoa Aluminum ad from 1953 touted its easy-to-open ketchup bottle cap with the phrase, “You mean a woman can open it?” This unfortunately presents the female figure in the ad in an unequal position – the caption that opens the ad suggests her frailty (in contrast to the implied “stronger male”) and the old social expectation of women being the homebodies. Nowadays, sexism still exists in popular media (the “Everything I Do Is Wrong” ad campaign for milk springs to mind), and with the video game industry is ripe for critical attention; the now-famous Feminist Frequency series, “Tropes vs. Women,” presented by Anita Sarkeesian, attempts to analyze common themes in games that happen to be sexist, and explain where things went wrong.
Unfortunately, Sarkeesian herself received a lot of backlash for the series, even before it began – apparently, there’s something about a video series examining video games through a feminist lens that brought out the vitriol in many. But what about the videos themselves? Do they handle the subject matter well?
This question is best addressed by disregarding the anger and bitterness expressed by numerous (male) viewers, who thought it appropriate to attack Sarkeesian herself instead of the arguments made in her videos; sexism in video games is critically important to discuss, as it hopefully opens up avenues for gender equality in the industry.
With that said, let’s look at some of Sarkeesian’s videos. Her first, Damsels in Distress Part 1, begins with her discussion of the classic story of the captured female and its place in history as well as games; now, it opens up with a brief discussion of the game Dinosaur Planet, which saw cancellation before being redesigned into Star Fox Adventures. Sarkeesian unfortunately skips over one of the most critical parts of Dinosaur Planet – the second character, Saber, which she only alludes to by mentioning that the game had two playable characters. This point would have made for great discussion; Dinosaur Planet had two equally capable protagonists, and their genders did not define their actions or inform their abilities. Unfortunately, this gets overshadowed by the overarching discursive narrative of sexism in video games present in the Tropes vs. Women series; Dinosaur Planet feels more like a footnote than an integral “what-if” game that got subsumed into a popular Nintendo franchise.
At the same time, Sarkeesian presents Krystal (the female fox-like being) as a sexualized damsel in distress, downplaying her role in Star Fox Adventures; the scene where Fox McCloud encounters Krystal for the first time doesn’t actually carry the connotation Sarkeesian suggests. Instead of being a typical example of the trope, Krystal is temporarily imprisoned in a crystal shell when she tried to save her own planet from destruction; Fox uses her staff for a brief period in the game to help her escape her confines, and she quickly retrieves her weapon from him once freed. A better argument would be made for her involvement in Star Fox: Assault, where she becomes less involved directly in the action of the game; yet, her role strengthens in Command, where she receives her own ship, the Cloud Runner.
The first video of the Damsel in Distress series also simplifies (or completely glosses over, in some cases) games that do not adhere strictly to the archetype; even Princess Peach, the poster girl for the trope, doesn’t quite fit completely into it. In the “core” series (those Mario games explicitly showing Peach being captured), Peach operates as the royal figure, whose disappearance could very well have thrown her kingdom into disarray; Mario saves the princess not only because of the classic “save the princess” formula, but because he is a loyal subject who recognizes Peach’s power. Shigeru Miyamoto uses this narrative so often because it is one of the most recognizable and easiest to tell – that doesn’t excuse the fact that Peach always winds up being the hostage, but Miyamoto tapped into one of the primeval tales found throughout human history.
But that’s another story for another day; Peach’s position as the “helpless princess” definitely needs to be addressed, but Sarkeesian speaks of it as though Peach is defined by her helplessness; from the video, she discusses the trope as a “ball game” between two dominant male figures, with the woman as the prize. What makes the series unusual is that Peach never offers anything other than a kiss in gratitude for Mario’s continuous flouting of Bowser; she does not marry him, she does not become his “property.” Instead, Peach resumes her duties as princess until Bowser returns to kidnap her once again; there seems to be an unspoken bond between leader and subject that speaks at once of love and respect for one another. Mario, the humble plumber, springs to the rescue, not expecting anything in return – Peach feels safe knowing that no matter what Bowser does, Mario will defeat him.
Zelda makes for a more baffling example – her double identity as princess of Hyrule and Sheik do show how she is capable on her own, something Anita directly addresses in the video. Her status as the “damsel in distress” stems from her constant capture by Ganondorf, the primary antagonist and a member of the Gerudo; Ganondorf’s desire to wield the Triforce and claim dominion over the entire world makes this a bit more complicated than Bowser, as he has a major political motive for removing Zelda from the picture entirely. Of course, Zelda being a woman makes this rather cringe-worthy, as it plays to the idea of the woman as the inactive participant in a power play between male character; like Super Mario Brothers, the Zelda series provides a classic narrative technique that plays upon the millennia-old concept of women as frail and powerless against male aggressors.
One major issue I had with her damsel-in-distress tropes is the bevy of clips from various games without any commentary on them whatsoever; the appearances of games such as the 2008 Alone in the Dark and Devil May Cry 4 focus exclusively on images of women in a helpless position, but Sarkeesian provides no context for them. To give a great example of this, Ico appears among the clips shown in the second Damsel in Distress video; this classic 2001 release follows the story of Ico and Yorda, two children who fight against Yorda’s mother, the evil queen. Sarkeesian doesn’t provide any detail on the story, and how it follows the stereotypes presented in her video, leaving the audience wondering if Ico really follows the archetype that closely.
On top of all this, Sarkeesian doesn’t provide an overview of gaming history from its nascent stages to today – YouTube user The Gaming Goose, in his response to the “Damsel in Distress” series, outlined several games from the 1980s that included playable female protagonists, ranging from the 1981 Lady Bug to 1985’s Baraduke, the latter of which depicts a non-sexualized representation of women (as Toby Masuyo wears a space suit throughout most of the game). Additionally, the iconic Metroid franchise centers around Samus Aran; one of the most famous reveals in gaming history showed Samus to be a woman in the original game. Nothing about Samus’ suit draws attentions to her “femaleness;” indeed, nothing gender-specific can be ascertained through the suit alone. Only by removing the armor does Samus reveal her identity to the audience, and it comes at the end of Metroid, when you’ve completed the entire game.
In addition, the “Ms. Male” video paints a rather curious picture about the use of “gender signifiers” in video games; Sarkeesian actually mentions that Toru Iwatani created Pac-Man to appeal to gamers, but focuses on one particular quote from an interview from Wired (dated May 21, 2010) where Iwatani explains his decision to go with “eating” as the gameplay structure for the classic Pac-Man arcade game. This quote, where Iwatani associates seemingly stereotypical trends (such as fashion) with women, receives a very critical eye from Sarkeesian, who finds his views “regressive;” other reviews of the video (such as that found in Hidden Thoughts) pointed out how polarizing this is.
Does the idea of “eating food” really sound offensive and unnecessarily drawing attention to gender lines? What made Ms. Pac-Man so unique was the fact that it displayed a relationship that couples could identify with; Sarkeesian’s snarky comment about the birth of the infant “through wedlock” comes across as needlessly harsh, because Ms. Pac-Man gives no overt indication of the couple’s marriage status. Simultaneously, in the Wired interview, Iwatani explicitly notes how dark and boy-oriented games at the time were, and wanted to counterbalance that with a light-hearted game centered on a non-traditional gaming principle (in this case, eating) to draw audiences who might otherwise avoid the arcade.
Of course, times change – Iwatani worked on Pac-Man during a time when shooters such as Galaga dominated the marketplace, but that no longer applies, since the present day offers a far more diverse range of genres (and representative games) to play.
As a final note, the Tropes vs. Women series marks one of the most famous attempts to bring attention to the male-female dichotomy in video games, but Sarkeesian’s points are marred by poor research; the removal of the Bayonetta video from her YouTube channel inadvertently gives us a great example of this, as Sarkeesian based her discussion on the character (and, subsequently, the game) on incomplete information. She described Bayonetta as a single mother, for example; anyone familiar with the game would know otherwise, and Sarkeesian’s statement to the contrary likely stems from images of a young girl, Cereza, whom Bayonetta helps throughout the game. Cereza happens to be a young Bayonetta, which is hinted throughout the game – confusion over the characters’ exact relationship betrays unfamiliarity with the story, and a misunderstanding of Cereza’s constant references to Bayonetta as “mummy.” This last point can be explained when one looks at Bayonetta’s narrative – Cereza mistakenly identifies Bayonetta for Luka, who gave birth to Bayonetta in 1411, thus cementing the Cereza-Bayonetta duality.
The Gaming Goose’s response to Anita Sarkeesian’s Damsel in Distress (uploaded 23 July 2013): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmxcMZ6p2zg
Q&A: Pac-Man Creator Reflects on 30 Years of Dot-Eating; Wired, 21 May, 2010. http://www.wired.com/2010/05/pac-man-30-years/
Hidden Thoughts analysis of the Ms. Male video (posted 25 November 2013): http://generalchelseamayhem.tumblr.com/post/68110961136/tropes-vs-women-ms-male-character-a-detailed-and