Monday, August 5, 2013
Re: Damsel in Distress: Part 3 - Tropes vs Women in Video Games
(This is a rough copy and paste of my script. Repeat, this is rough.) Sadly, Anita has released yet another part in her Damsel in Distress series, this time she looks at a number of very promising games, some with fairly novel game mechanics and others that use humor and irony to, what I would argue, actually make a negative statement about sexism. However her trademark "blank-stare of disapproval" readily dismisses seemingly any indication of gendered characters. Don't fret though, as per her other videos, she permits us to simultaneously enjoy and maintain healthy suspicion of such games. Never let your guards down girls, gendered representations of video game characters could be anywhere waiting to oppress you. We start off with what looks like a pretty fun game, Spr Prn Peach. (it is on my to buy list) It's a platformer for the DS where you get to play as Princess Peach. In the game, Peach's special moves are all based around her emotions. You have to use your emotions of joy, rage, gloom and calm to defeat enemies, solve puzzles and otherwise get through the game. Despite this being a fairly novel game mechanic, Anita dismisses the game because she can't see this as anything but a PMS joke. She additionally discredits it because as it turns out your magical umbrella is really a little boy that's been cursed and that this side story takes the attention off Peach. While comparing Damsel-in-Distress with the Dude-in-Distress, that is when a male character needs saving by a woman, Anita says that they're not equivalent because of the broader historical and cultural implications. This is a pretty vague statement, but one of the reasons she follows it up with is that "Damsel'd characters reinforce pre-existing regressive notions about women as a group (being weak... because of their gender) while stories with the occasional helpless male character do not perpetuate anything negative about men as a group since there is no long standing stereotypes about men being weak and incapable because of their gender." This is bullshit. There are plenty of such stereotypes of men being weak, incompetent, hot headed, indecisive or unable to think outside of their penis. These have been prevalent in TV sitcoms for years in shows like Home Improvement, King of Queens, Hercules, Roseanne, Big Bang Theory, and in Movies like 3 Men and a Baby, or uhh anything with Adam Sandler in it. These examples aren't video games but they are part of the larger cultural context that Anita keeps talking about. Plus, how many times have you read a book, watched a tv show or movie that shows the shorter, uglier guys as completely helpless in almost everything while the alpha male of the group, or the woman in his life, guides them along? Anita presents a slightly misleading factoid when she mentions a study which showed that only "4% of leading titles are exclusively designed around women in the leading role." Yes we know that most games don't have a leading female protagonist, but what Anita omitted from the study was that it found 45% percent of the games had the option of selecting a playable female character. That's a pretty good number and if Anita was being objective she could have atleast noted it as a positive sign. The indie game Spelunky is used as a back drop for her claims about Dudes-in-Distress. In the game, whilst you are spelunking you find and rescue a damsel in each level. In the settings you can replace the female damsel with a “chippendale-style hunk” or a very cute dog that looks like Pug. Anita takes an unfair jab at the existence of a dog option saying that being able to easily replace the female character with the dog is “probably a pretty good indication that something is wrong.” It's obvious from the clips of the game that the purpose of the damsel is really just a token that the protagonist needs to carry to the end of the level. The damsel in Spelunky isn't meant to have any depth, doesn't have any real dialog and this is why it was possible swap her with two other options. (We covered why this isn't a terrible thing in the first video.) This isn't saying that Spelunky is bad, its an arcade platformer without any real story and randomly generated levels. It's silly to expect that every type of game should have some in-depth story. Anita chooses to take the jab at the cute little dog because the juxtaposition suggests the female damsel is valued at the same level as the dog and this is the message she wanted to send to her audience even though its inappropriate given the larger context of the game. Anita continues talking about the guy and girl damsels options in Spelunky , explicitly saying that the girl is a problem and the guy is not. Her reasoning is that this is because the female damsel reinforces pre-existing stereotypes about women but the guy does not reinforce any pre-existing stereotypes about men—even though when she described him she said in her words that he was a “chippendale style hunk.” Isn't that a stereotype? The square-jawed dumb-as-a-rock hunk with flowing blonde hair and chiseled abs? It's worth noting that the hunk is wearing only underwear and a bowtie while the female damsel is atleast fully clothed. Yet providing these options are not a “quick and easy fix.” Anita wants to tell us how to fix things... later she says simply reversing roles in the damsel-in-distress is not enough and that we need to “think beyond the cliche.” Well, it's a plot device that, as Anita mentions, we have a lot of history with. It is easy and familiar, this is why it is done ad nauseum. Games that don't need a deep story end up using it in their 3-second intro and it has no bearing on 99% of the gameplay. Some games still focus almost soley, if not soley on gameplay you know. As it turns out, Anita is no fan of the irony. Games that employ irony and humor to poke fun at the damsel trope get a disappointed shake of the head from Anita because they do not disrupt what the trope says about the role of women in these narratives, but why should they have to? The examples she mentions are all arcade games or co-op multiplayer games without a story of any depth, so they don't actually have the opportunity to disrupt the trope through storytelling. Aside from avoiding the trope completely—which wouldn't address the issue, the most they can do to damage the trope would be to poke fun at it as they are doing. One of her examples, Fat Princess looks like a lot of fun. I want to feed my princess cake so she is harder to kidnap, that sounds like good times to me. Anita somehow attributes trick game-endings where the damsel at the end of the game turns out to be some weird clown person like in Castle Crashers or a monster like in Eversion to be comedy at the damsel's expense. I don't understand the reasoning here since it is the protagonist that turns out to have quested for naught, it seems to me that the joke is on them, the protaganist. Later on, Anita argues that “not taking jokes seriously,” which is what I am proposing, is a “sad time honored tradition” and that we are fundamentally misunderstanding “how humor functions as one of the primary means by which the culture of sexism is maintained and perpetuated.” I would argue that beating women and denying them their rights such as to drive, go out without a chapperone or get a job are the more primary means to perpetuate a culture of sexism. It is also possible that Anita “fundamentally misunderstands” how humor functions. We use humor as a tool to communicate with each other, to get along with each other and to cope with sensitive social and cultural issues. Anita's solution to the damsel cliche is a call to action with catchy mantras such as, “disrupt the established pattern,” “break the cycle” and “create new gender paradigms.” Well maybe the last one isn't catchy but that's her closing remark so it must be important, right(?), but what does it really mean? What kind of new gender paradigms can we create here? Earlier in the video she uses Secret of Monkey Island as a positive example since it features Elaine Marley as a strong capable pirate who engineers her own escape though the male protagonist Guybrush Threepwood ruins it with his attempt to rescue her. Strong capable females aren't new, by her own examples in Monkey Island, Beyond Good and Evil,etc.. and aside from video games, going back into history with Joan of Arc. ( LET'S NOT FORGET THE NUMEROUS FEMALE GODS OF yore)AND UH Tomb Raider, which she still hasn't talked about, Her own proposed game story, “The Legend of the Last Princess” features a princess who rescues herself by breaking out of the prison's brick wall Kool-Aid man style with her bare fists and then the player would level up by defeating legions of bad guys and beat the game by going on to defeat the council of evil men that imprisoned her. So should the new paradigm be that of strong women beating up evil men? This sounds like the gender swap/reversal that the Dude-in-distress does which she dismissed because we need to think beyond the cliche. Well atleast this is a different cliche then? Mutual aid is offered as a positive mechanic whereby a female protagonist need not be comically overpowered to drive the storyline. Here characters help each other to advance and hence people of all genders can cooperate. It is really though just a mechanic that could be used to swap between different gendered characters. Kind of like in Spelunky but where you are swapping the playable character. In a multiplayer game with female characters, this kind of multi-gender cooperation can occur sporadically like the mutliplayer mode of Spelunky... Again this isn't a new gender paradigm. New things don't just appear, they're usually combinations of or iterations on old things. Maybe Anita doesn't know what she really wants, I would guess that when she says new gender paradigms she just wants more games with exclusively female protagonists or just strong females in general and definitely no boob jiggle. For the latter I would suggest she find a good sports bra. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy good games, including new games w/female leads, which I think is totally think is nice to see, and not be insecure about my gender or get bogged down about concerns of the characters genders in the game. A wise man once said, let me see if I can get this right, It'S only game, why you hEFF to be mad?