Damsels in Distress 3: Tropes vs Women in Video Games

Every day a new Tropes vs Women in Video Games is released is like Misandry Christmas. In this episode, Anita Sarkeesian discusses subversion and reversal of the typical kidnapped princess trope, along with a few more examples of sexist bullshit.

When I was young, Earthworm Jim was one of my favorite games, and it pains me a bit to be reminded of how it perpetuated sexism while attempting to mock it. But I’m glad to see another old favorite, Monkey Island, pointed out as a proper subversion of the trope. Spoilers ahead for many games, listed below the video:

Those with Spoilers are marked with an asterisk (*)

Super Princess Peach (2006)
Balloon Kid (1990)
Kya: Dark Lineage (2003)
Primal (2003)
* Beyond Good & Evil (2003)
Aquaria (2007)
Spelunky (2012)
Donkey King: Pauline Edition (2013)
Wind Waker: Gender Pronoun Mod (2012)
Zelda Starring Zelda (2013)
Gish (2004)
* Castle Crashers (2008)
* Eversion (2008)
Machinarium (2009)
Super Meat Boy (2010)
Frobot (2010)
I Must Run (2010)
Flying Hamster (2010)
Rochard (2011)
Sideway: New York (2011)
Zack Zero (2012)
Bean’s Quest (2012)
Hotline Miami (2012)
Labyrinth Legends (2012)
Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves (2013)
Gunman Clive (2013)
DLC Quest (2013)
The Other Brothers (2013)
Fist Puncher (2013)
Fightback (2013)
Tiny Thief (2013)
Knightmare Tower (2013)
Guacamelee (2013)
Adventures of Lolo (1989)
Cloudberry Kingdom (2013)
Hoard (2010)
Dokuro (2012)
Fat Princess (2009)
Fez (2012)
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (2011)
Where is my Heart? (2011)
Rayman Origins (2011)
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (2011)
* Earthworm Jim (1994)
* The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)
* Braid (2008)
Thomas Was Alone (2012)
Donkey Kong (1981)

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. When she was describing her idea for an anti-damsel in distress game concept, it seemed to me she was basically describing the plot outline of an Elder Scrolls-type game if you play as a female character. They weren’t designed to undermine the trope, of course, but her concept really isn’t that far out.

    1. The open world sort of game like the Elder Scrolls game can be a great way to play a female character in a game. It is at least not just a tacked on “female” option for a male-focused plot. Though in all fairness, the Elder Scrolls games themselves are not free of damsel in distress quests.

      1. They’re not always ideal, no. I was mainly trying to point out that her game concept isn’t that far outside the mainstream. It could be done.

  2. I’d just like to say that I’ve only come to love Full Throttle more as I’ve grown older. It’s got a male main character drenched in masculinity yet it also has a strong female character that never becomes a damsel or a prize to be won. Quite the contrary. It seems to ignore that these tropes ever existed in the first place. It had women drawn with the diversity usually reserved for men.

    It also has the best ending of anything ever.

    1. Lara Croft has been discussed and analyzed repeatedly:
      Anita Sarkeesian discusses her in the earlier videos (and will again in later ones) and here in an interview:
      “Similarly, as part of my video about the “Fighting F@#k Toy” trope, I will be detailing the problematic ways in which even female protagonists like Lara Croft are still objectified and sexualized for a presumed straight-male audience. Obviously, I’m in favor of more female protagonists across the board, but it has to be linked with an intentional shift away from the idea that women in games exist primarily as objects of sexual desire. Sometimes it definitely feels like a “one step forward, two steps back” type of scenario. On that note, though, it looks like Lara Croft is finally wearing pants in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot. So perhaps we will see less objectification, but judging from the E3 trailer, there are potentially a host of other problematic gendered tropes at play.”

      1. Also, please don’t bring up Samus Aran — seemingly the only other name brought up every time Sarkeesian’s videos are being discussed anywhere.

        1. Really? I think it’s pretty relevant to bring up Samus Aran, and I’m looking forward to Anita Sarkeesian’s analysis of her games. I have read that Samus wasn’t even originally conceived of as female, but that the decision to make her a woman was a sort of afterthought, with the idea that it would be a surprise to the player who would have assumed she was male. Whether or not this decision was driven by feminist ideals, I still think it’s a really cool subversion of the idea that the “default gender,” in the absence of defining sexual traits (as when covered by a power suit), is male. After the first Metroid game, Samus enjoyed a pretty good period of being a rare example of a female character in video gaming who was (almost) in no way sexualized (the one exception that I can think of is the animation in Super Metroid when you run out of energy, and the suit explodes, gratuitously revealing Samus in her underwear). But I think it’s very telling that eventually, Nintendo decided to create Zero Suit Samus, in a form-fitting body suit (including boob socks). I think Samus serves as a great example against the idea that video game companies are just responding to what players demand, as Metroid was already a tremendously popular series, and Samus a much loved icon of video gaming, before Nintendo decided to sexualize her.

          1. I’m not sure if you recall the ending, but there were multiple endings of Metroid. If you beat it in a certain amount of time, the reveal was the “best” ending where an 8-bit sprite appears in a bikini or underwear. If you took your time, you would never know (and I only knew because I saw a friend beat the game in that time frame). It’s touched on briefly in Sarkeesian’s Gamespot interview: http://www.gamespot.com/features/from-samus-to-lara-an-interview-with-anita-sarkeesian-of-feminist-frequency-6382189/ — note, that she calls that potential series as the”Women as Reward” trope.

            But that’s beside the point. Basically, I’m not saying this is the way you brought Samus up in this case, but she and Lara are often, without much awareness, brought up in almost every single discussion about the depiction of women in video games in a particular way. They seem to be the only go-to examples for people who often attempt to undermine the argument that these tropes are as problematic as Sarkeesian makes them out to be or just examples to prove these tropes don’t even exist. I agree that the industry is often offering excuses about just responding to their customers, but a) Samus’ origin is somewhat problematic all things considered and b) Samus is not inserted into these discussions as something that undermines the credibility of the antagonistic audience’s denial of or the industry’s continual use of these tropes — rather, the opposite.

    2. Didn’t Lara Croft have a parka that showed her midriff?

      That’s some empowerment right there. She’s empowered enough to dare to bare her bellybutton even though she could die of exposure. And did. Lots of times. New Lara Croft would have been a hell of a lot better if she’d bothered to put on a jacket near the end. The snow and ice would have been a lot more real if she’d just gotten cold.

  3. Of course the very existence of Anita Sarkeesian sends basement-dwelling man-child (and child) homophobic misogynists into a butthurt whirling dervish of rape threats. What inflames them even more is the fact they can’t do this directly on her Youtube videos. Hilariously, many of these guys refer to themselves as “equalists”.

  4. So far I’ve enjoyed her videos but after this one it seems like she keeps making the same point over and over without adding much new to her argument. There was a woman who recently retired from writing for the game’s industry and she gave an in depth conversation on why. She basically said that gameplay is where all time, money, and development gets spend, and that narrative and story is usually an afterthought. She even gave examples of sometimes the game is essentially finished when writers or developers are told to think something up but nothing too out there since the game is almost done. This results in writers more often then not sticking to the simplest story/goals possible which is why not only are game narratives generally sexist but why they are usually so simplistic and rely fairy tale/kids story tropes. For instance using a game like Donkey Kong is a bit unfair. To say that its a damsel in distress trope is true, but it hardly has anything to do with the game as a whole. The game is climbing ladders, jumping over barrels, and getting to the top. The damsel in distress is just a hackneyed attempt to give the player a goal, except that in regards to Donkey Kong the real goal that players have is to get the highest score or through as many levels as possible. I’d wonder if many of the people who play Donkey Kong even know that there is a goal other than beating the level.

    This is especially true in regards to much of the indie game movement which tends to rely on super simplistic graphics, gameplay, and plot. The more simple a game is, I reckon, the more likely you might see the damsel in distress being used, barring puzzle games of course. Heck if there is a trope in video games that could possibly rival the damsel in distress trope its the kid chosen to save the world trope.

    I look forward to her next video I just hope it has a little more to offer than this one did. It was nice to see her offering a solution, and frankly I wonder why Assassin’s creed has not had a female protagonist. As a gamestop employee I noticed that, that was a series very popular among female gamers and a really great story could be told with a female protagonist. My mind reals at the possibilities of a female character in that game. One who uses the preconceptions of females against the people she is trying to assassinate. It’d be great.

    1. “She basically said that gameplay is where all time, money, and development gets spend, and that narrative and story is usually an afterthought. ”

      To me this is no different than the excuses toy makers make about how if they don’t use pink their “girls” toys won’t sell. And supposedly since it is good business we should forgive the sexist part.

      And in this specific case, it doesn’t make sense. If they were in a rush and wanted to add a goal to the game, they could have easily made the game about finding a treasure and just that.

      “To say that its a damsel in distress trope is true, but it hardly has anything to do with the game as a whole.”

      But that’s actually problem. You could have enjoyed playing donkey kong just fine without adding a poor damsel in distress to the story. The damsels don’t make the games more entertaining or better. The only thing they do is reinforce a stereotype. It would have been cheaper to develop Donkey Kong if they didn’t add the damsel in distress. And we wouldn’t have noticed. Donkey Kong is also very relevant because it basically made the trope popular in video games. Before Donkey Kong, games were about eating all the pellets in the room, or destroying all the space ships or scoring a goal against the other block.

      1. I’m not denying that they could have put anything in there. My point is exactly the point you made they could have put a treasure in there as well, and they do there are just as many games if not more that have treasures as a goal, or whatever the Mcguffin is. My point is its laziness, unimaginativeness, and the game development process that fuels this type of thing. I’ve enjoyed this series but I would appreciate if she attempted to find out more the hows and whys as well what are some things that developers can do to avoid these pitfalls. I mean yes they can change it from one trope to another trope to be less sexist but that doesn’t actually address the problem inherent in games which is that more often than not goal setting, and story telling are haphazardly slapped on which results in sexism and stupidity.

        1. Of course, it would be great to have that discussion with the industry, and if this series keeps generating conversation, it would be useful to have some followup in that direction. However, that really doesn’t appear to be the point of this exercise. For one thing, her intended audience in this series appears to be gamers, who she directly addressed with a statement about how there’s nothing wrong with enjoying these games but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mean we critically examine the pernicious elements. It’s an awareness campaign, since so few people, as you yourself point out, even seem aware of how pervasive and internalized these tropes are.

          As for story being an afterthought, for most games it’s how it will always be, and in fact SHOULD be, to a large extent since most games aren’t story-driven in the manner in which novels or books are. An awareness campaign can make it so that if devs reach into a bag of lazy tropes, they take half-a-second to pull their hands back from the ones that have cultural baggage. Or if not, the players can at least be consciously aware of the thing they are seeing and discontinue internalizing such a thing.

          Also, just to address something earlier, it isn’t unfair to point out the damsel in distress trope in Donkey Kong as it’s one of the earliest purveyor of the trope and lauded for having done sow. It being a hackneyed afterthought, even if true, isn’t a mitigation of its problematic nature, but rather just goes to point out how internalized the trope is. Additionally, speculating that people wouldn’t know there’s any other goal other than a score undermines the very reasons critics have pointed out why that game was so groundbreaking: distinct character sprites like Jumpman (Mario), the basic story where a gorilla kidnaps an obviously blonde woman (who apparently lost her parasol and purse along the way) and the opening cutscene. Heck, the cabinet art was essentially just a cartoon of King Kong kidnapping Fay Wray being chased by the lead character (who has his own problems as he gets fleshed out in future games). Personally speaking, I played that game for the first time on my Colecovision in 1982, and I can tell you that I, at least, wanted to beat that damn gorilla every time and save the lady.

          Also, I worked in games journalism for a total of about 3 years, and whether conscious or unconscious, my direct observation (born out by the recent twitter hashtag #1ReasonWhy that detailed women’s experiences in the industry) sexism in the games industry is pervasive. It’s telling when women are equated with objects when throwing in a trope, and to fix that takes awareness and a shift in culture, not merely a procedural change.

          1. I completely agree, although again I feel like Donkey Kong is again a bit unfair as its essentially as you pointed out a rip off of King Kong so saying its using a sexist trope is a bit redundant seeing as its based on a sexist trope, but I’m quibbling at this point so yeah your right. I still stand by my criticism that this video did not really add much the other videos hadn’t already gone over other than bringing up the fact that much vaunted indie videogames are just as guilty of tropes. Like I said I’ve enjoyed the videos, its just that this episode just felt like padding to me and I hope the next one offers a little more than this one did. I think the more she cites specific examples the more neckbeards MRAs can cite specific examples right back. A good exacting breakdown of the number of games that use a trope would be very hard to argue against, although that would probably take a lot of work to compile and maybe is beyond the scope of this project, and would probably be ignored anyway. Still I’d love to see that pie chart, or bar graph or whatever, I just like seeing data represented visually.

          2. As to the example citations, in the video she goes over exceptions. Neckbeard MRAs can only cite examples that tend to be problematic in and of themselves (see: Lara Croft/Samus Aran above). And as you pointed out, a good exacting breakdown wouldn’t be useful because those same “neckbeards” probably would ignore it, and it’s not about percentages or pure volume as a metric. It’s an awareness campaign, thus reinforced by a visual narrative of examples of actual gameplay footage. I’m always amazed that people our particular community of skeptics can laud something like COSMOS (both old and hopefully new) as a chance to draw people into the resonating wonder of learning about science, but then at the drop of hat, something like sexual harassment or cultural tropes requires a extensive data presentations, apparently in PowerPoint. I don’t think Neil Degrasse Tyson will be pulling out pie charts and line graphs during his television show.

            I understand if you feel that the video series might be lacking, likely due to its budget-constrained format, but honestly, the things you are looking for don’t make much sense to me for what is a tried-and-true formula in educational television — engagement, repetition and interesting visuals. Remember, this really isn’t for people who have already thought about this issue very much.

  5. I confess to having mixed feelings about Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series. She seems excessively busty, especially for a woman who is very athletic. Her clothes are often too scanty, like going bare-legged in cold weather in TR2 and TR2G. But aside from that, they are usually appropriate, like hiking boots or the wetsuit in TR2 or the full-length pants in several places, like in cold weather in TR3 and TR5.

    The other characters of TR are largely male, but there are some notable female ones, like villains Jacqueline Natla of TR1 and Sophia Leigh of TR3. Both of them look like well-dressed businesswomen. Sort of like how Elexis Sinclaire of SiN ought to have been dressed.

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