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← Damsel in Distress: Part 1 - Tropes vs Women in Video Games

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Showing Revision 6 created 03/12/2013 by femfreq.

  1. "Mario!"

  2. "Ah! Help!"
  3. Welcome to our multi-part video series exploring the roles and representations of women in video games
  4. This project will examine the tropes, plot devices and patterns most commonly associated with women in gaming
  5. from a systemic, big picture perspective.
  6. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters
  7. but remember, that it's both possible, and even necessary
  8. to simultaneously enjoy media, while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.
  9. So, without further ado, let's jump right into the Damsel In Distress.
  10. Let's start with the story of a game that no one ever got to play
  11. Back in 1999, game developer 'Rare' was hard at work on a new original title for the Nintendo 64 called Dinosaur Planet.
  12. The game was to star a 16 year old hero named Krystal as one of two playable protagonists.
  13. She was tasked with travelling through time, fighting prehistoric monsters with her magical staff
  14. and saving the world. She was strong, she was capable and she was heroic.
  15. "And who might you be, animal girl?"
  16. "My name is Krystal"
  17. Pretty cool right?
  18. Well, it would have been except the game never got released.
  19. As development on the project neared completion, legendary game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto
  20. joked about how he thought it should be the third installment in his Star Fox franchise instead.
  21. Over the next two years, he and Nintendo did just that.
  22. They rewrote and redesigned the game and released it as Star Fox Adventures for the Game Cube in 2002.
  23. In this revamped version, the would-be protagonist Krystal, has been transformed into a Damsel in Distress
  24. and spends the vast majority of the game trapped inside a crystal prison
  25. waiting to be rescued by the new hero, Fox McCloud.
  26. The in-game actions sequences that were originally built for Krystal
  27. were converted to feature Fox instead.
  28. Krystal is given a skimpier, more sexualized outfit.
  29. "Wow! She's beautiful!!"
  30. "What am I doing?"
  31. And, yes. That is cheesy saxophone music playing to make sure it's crystal clear
  32. that she is now an object of desire, even while in suspended animation.
  33. To add insult to injury, Fox is now using her magical staff to fight his way through the game to save her.
  34. The tale of how Krystal went from protagonist of her own epic adventure
  35. to the passive victim in someone else's game
  36. illustrates how the Damsel-in-Distress trope disempowers female characters
  37. and robs them of the chance to be heroes in their own rite.
  38. The term 'Damsel in Distress' is a translation of the French 'demoiselle en détresse'.
  39. 'Demoiselle' simply means 'young lady'
  40. while 'détresse' means, roughly, anxiety or despair caused by a sense of abandonment, helplessness or danger.
  41. As a trope, the Damsel in Distress is a plot device
  42. in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation
  43. from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character,
  44. usually providing the core incentive or motivation for the protagonist's quest.
  45. In video games, this is most often accomplished via kidnapping
  46. but it can also take the form of petrification or demon possession for example.
  47. Traditionally, the woman in distress is a family member or a love interest of the hero -
  48. princesses, wives, girlfriends and sisters are all commonly used to fill the role.
  49. Of course the Damsel in Distress predates the invention of video games by several thousand years.
  50. The trope can be traced back to Ancient Greek mythology with the tale of Perseus.
  51. According to the myth, Andromeda is about to be devoured by a sea monster
  52. after being chained naked to a rock as human sacrifice.
  53. Perseus slays the beast, rescues the princess and then claims her as his wife.
  54. In the middle ages, the Damsel in Distress was a common feature in many medieval songs, legends and fairy tales.
  55. The saving of a defenseless woman was often portrayed as the raison d'être
  56. or reason for existence in romance tales and poems of the era,
  57. involving a knight-errant, the wandering knight adventuring to prove his chivalry, prowess and virtue.
  58. At the turn of the twentieth century, victimized young women became the cliché of choice
  59. for the nascent American film industry as it provided an easy and sensational plot device for the silver screen.
  60. A famous early example is the 1913 Keystone Cops short "Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life'"
  61. which features the now iconic scene of a woman being tied to the railway tracks by an evil mustache twirling villain.
  62. Around the same time, the motif of a giant monkey, carrying away a screaming woman
  63. began to gain widespread popularity in media of all kinds.
  64. Notably Tarzan's love interest Jane is captured by a broodish primate
  65. in Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 pulp adventure Tarzan and the Apes
  66. In 1930, Walt Disney used this meme in an early Mickey Mouse cartoon
  67. called The Gorilla Mystery.
  68. The imagery was even exploited by the US military in this recruitment poster for World War I.
  69. But it was in 1933 that two things happened, which 50 years later,
  70. would set the stage for the Damsel in Distress trope to become a foundational element in video games as a media.
  71. First, Paramount Pictures introduced their animated series, Popeye the Sailor to cinema audiences.
  72. The formula for most shorts would involved Popeye rescuing a kidnapped Olive Oyl.
  73. Second, in March of that year, RKO pictures releases its groundbreaking hit film King Kong
  74. in which a giant ape abducts a young woman and is eventually killed while trying to keep possession of her.
  75. Fast forward to 1981, when a Japanese company named Nintendo
  76. entrusted a young designer named Shigeru Miyamoto
  77. with the task of creating a new arcade game for the American market.
  78. Originally, the project was conceived of as a game starring Popeye the sailor
  79. but when Nintendo wasn't able to secure the rights
  80. Miyamoto created his own characters to fill the void, heavily influenced by the movie King Kong.
  81. The game's hero 'Jump Man' was tasked with rescuing a damsel named 'The Lady',
  82. after she is carried off by a giant ape.
  83. In later versions, she's renamed 'Pauline'.
  84. Although Donkey Kong is perhaps the most famous early arcade game to feature the Damsel in Distress
  85. it wasn't the first time Miyamoto employed the trope.
  86. Two years earlier, he had a hand in designing a 1979 arcade game called Sheriff.
  87. In it, a vague female shaped collection of pixels
  88. referred to as 'The Beauty', must be rescued from a pack of bandits.
  89. The hero is then rewarded with a 'smooch of victory' for his bravery in the end.
  90. A few years later, Miyamoto recycled his Donkey Kong character designs
  91. Pauline became the template for a new damsel named Princess Toadstool
  92. and 'Jump Man' became a certain very famous plumber.
  93. Princess Peach is in many ways the quintessential stock character version of the Damsel in Distress.
  94. The ill-fated princess appears in fourteen of the core Super Mario Bros platformer games
  95. and she's kidnapped in thirteen of them.
  96. The North American release of Super Mario Bros 2 in 1988
  97. remains the only game in the core series in which Peach is not kidnapped
  98. and also the only game in which she 's a playable character,
  99. though it should be noted it wasn't originally created to be Mario game at all.
  100. The game was originally released in Japan under a completely different title
  101. called Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic
  102. which roughly translates to Dream Factory: Heart Pounding Panic
  103. Nintendo of American thought that the original Japanese release of Super Mario Bros 2 was too difficult and too similar to the first game
  104. so they re-skinned and redesigned *Doki Doki Panic* to star Mario and Luigi instead.
  105. However, the Japanese game already had four playable characters.
  106. So the designers opted to include Toad and the Princess to fill the two remaining slots
  107. building directly on top of the pre-existing character models.
  108. So really, if we're honest, Peach is kinda accidentally playable in this one.
  109. Still, she had the awesome ability to float for short distances
  110. which came in really handy, especially in the ice levels.
  111. Sadly, Peach has never been a playable character again in the main franchise.
  112. Even with newer games that feature four player options like the new Super Mario Bros Wii and WiiU
  113. the Princess is still excluded from the action.
  114. She's been replaced with another Toad instead
  115. as to allow Nintendo to force her back into the Damsel role again and again.
  116. Peach does of course appear in many spin offs
  117. such as the Mario Party, Mario Sports and Mario Kart series
  118. as well as the Super Smash Bros Nintendo universe cross-over fighting games.
  119. However all of these spin offs fall well outside of the core Super Mario series of platformers.
  120. She is the star of only one adventure, and we'll get to that a little later.
  121. One way to think about Damsel'd characters is via what's called the subject/object dichotomy.
  122. In the simplest terms subjects act and objects are acted upon.
  123. The subject is the protagonist; the one who the story is centered on
  124. and the one doing most of the action.
  125. In video games this is almost always the main playable character
  126. and the one from whose perspective most of the story is seen.
  127. So the Damsel trope typically makes men the subject of narratives
  128. while relegating women to the role of object.
  129. This is a form of objectification because as objects Damsel'd women are being acted upon,
  130. most often becoming or reduced to a prize to be won, a treasure to be found or a goal to be achieved.
  131. The brief into sequence accompanying many classic arcade games
  132. tends to reinforce the framing of women as a possession that's been stolen from the protagonist.
  133. The hero's fight to retrieve his stolen 'property' then provides lazy justification for the actual gameplay.
  134. At its heart, the Damsel trope is not really about women at all.
  135. She simply becomes the central object in a competition between men,
  136. at least in its traditional incarnations.
  137. I've heard it said that, in the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team,
  138. they are the ball.
  139. So for example, we can think of the Super Mario franchise as a grand game being played
  140. between Mario and Bowser and Princess Peach's role is essentially that of the ball.
  141. The two men are tossing her back and forth over the course of the main series,
  142. each trying to keep and take possession of the 'Damsel Ball'.
  143. Even though Nintendo certainly didn't invent the Damsel in Distress,
  144. the popularity of their 'save the princess' formula, essentially set the standard for the industry.
  145. The trope quickly became the go-to motivational hook for developers
  146. as it provided an easy way to tap into adolescent male power fantasies
  147. in order to sell more games to young straight boys and men.
  148. "Help Me!"
  149. "Help Me!"
  150. "Help Me!"
  151. "Help Me!"
  152. "Save Me!"
  153. "Help!"
  154. "Please help me Blade!"
  155. Throughout the 80's and 90's the trope became so prevalent,
  156. that it would be nearly impossible to mention them all.
  157. There were literally hundreds of examples showing up in platformers
  158. side scrolling beat-em-ups,
  159. first person shooters
  160. and role playing games alike.
  161. Let's take a quick moment to clear up some common misconceptions about this trope.
  162. As a plot device the Damsel in Distress is often grouped with other separate tropes,
  163. including 'The Designated Victim', 'The Heroic Rescue' and 'The Smooch of Victory'.
  164. However, it's important to remember that these associated conventions
  165. are not necessarily a part of the Damsel in Distress trope itself.
  166. So the woman in question may or may not play the victim role for the entire game or series
  167. while our brave hero may or may not be successful in his rescue attempts.
  168. All that is really required to fulfill the Damsel in Distress trope
  169. is for a female character to be reduced to a state of helplessness
  170. from which she requires rescuing by a typically male hero for the benefit of his story arc.
  171. This brings us to the other famous Nintendo princess.
  172. In 1986, Shigeru Miyamoto doubled down on his Damsel in Distress formula
  173. with the NES release of The Legend of Zelda.
  174. This was the first in what would become one of the most beloved action adventure game franchises of all time.
  175. "Zelda!"
  176. "The Legend of Zelda continues."
  177. "Zelda!"
  178. "Find the crystals, rescue the princess."
  179. "Zelda!" *"Zelda!"
  180. "Zelda II: The Adventure of Link"
  181. "Nintendo! Now you're playing with power."
  182. Over the course of more than a dozen games, spanning a quarter century,
  183. all of the incarnations of Princess Zelda have been kidnapped, cursed, possessed, turned to stone
  184. or otherwise disempowered at some point.
  185. Zelda has never been the star in her own adventure nor been a true playable character in the core series.
  186. However, it must be said that not all Damsels are created equal
  187. and Zelda is occasionally given a more active or integral role to play than her counter part in the Mushroom Kingdom.
  188. Unlike Peach, Zelda is not completely defined by her role as Ganondorf's perpetual kidnap victim
  189. and in a few later games, she even rides the line between Damsel and Sidekick.
  190. Remember, the Damsel in Distress as plot device is something that happens to a female character
  191. and not necessarily something a character is from start to finish.
  192. Once in a while, she might be given the opportunity to have a slightly more active role
  193. in facilitating the hero's quest, typically by opening doors, giving hints, power-ups
  194. and other helpful items.
  195. I call this variant on the theme, The Helpful Damsel.
  196. Indeed Zelda is at her best when she takes the form of Sheik in Ocarina of Time and Tetra in The Wind Waker.
  197. In Ocarina of Time, Zelda avoids capture for the first three quarters of the game.
  198. Disguised as Sheik, she is a helpful and active participant in the adventure
  199. and she is shown to be more than capable.
  200. However, as soon as she transforms back into her more stereotypically feminine form of Princess Zelda
  201. she's captured within three minutes.
  202. Literally three minutes. I timed it.
  203. Her rescue then becomes central to the end of Link's quest.
  204. Similarly, in the Wind Waker, Tetra is a feisty and impressive young pirate captain
  205. but as soon as she is revealed to be, and transformed into her more stereotypically feminine form of Princess Zelda
  206. she's told that she's no longer allowed to accompany Link on the adventure
  207. because it is suddenly too dangerous for her.
  208. She's ordered to wait in the castle,
  209. which she does until she is eventually kidnapped, while waiting obediently in the same spot.
  210. It is noteworthy that, in the very last stage of the boss battle,
  211. she does help Link fight Ganondorf for a few brief minutes, which is a refreshing change.
  212. However the next time Tetra's incarnation appears in 2007's The Phantom Hourglass
  213. she is kidnapped immediately during the intro.
  214. Later she is turned to stone and then kidnapped for a second time.
  215. It’s disappointing that even with her moments of heroism, Zelda is still damsel’ed
  216. she is removed from the action, pushed aside,
  217. and made helpless at least once in every game she appears in.
  218. This brings us to one of the core reasons why the trope is so problematic and pernicious for women’s representations.
  219. The damsel in distress is not just a synonym for “weak”,
  220. instead it works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones.
  221. No matter what we are told about their magical abilities, skills or strengths
  222. they're still ultimately captured or otherwise incapacitated and then must wait for rescue.
  223. Distilled down to its essence, the plot device works by trading the disempowerment of female characters
  224. for the empowerment of male characters.
  225. Let’s compare the Damsel to the archetypal Hero Myth,
  226. in which the typically male character may occasionally also be harmed,
  227. incapacitated or briefly imprisoned at some point during their journey.
  228. In these situations, the character relies on their intelligence, cunning, and skill to engineer their own escape
  229. "That's better"
  230. — or, you know, just punching a hole in the prison wall works too.
  231. The point is, they're ultimately able to gain back their own freedom.
  232. In fact that process of overcoming the ordeal
  233. is an important step in the protagonist's transformation into an heroic figure.
  234. A Damsel'd woman on the other hand, is shown as incapable of escaping the predicament on her own
  235. and then must wait for a savior to come and do it for her.
  236. In this way, the Damsel's ordeal is not her own,
  237. instead it's framed as a trial for the hero to overcome.
  238. Consequently the trope robs women in peril from the opportunity of being the architects of their own escape
  239. and therefore prevents them from becomig archetypal heroes themselves.
  240. Today, many old school Damsel games are being resurrected for modern platform services and mobile devices
  241. as publishers are in a rush to cash in on gaming nostalgia
  242. and capitalise on any recognisable characters from years gone by.
  243. For example, Sega's 1993 platformer, Sonic CD, featuring a Damsel'ed Amy Rose
  244. has been enhanced and made available for download on a wide variety of modern platforms.
  245. Jordan Mechner's famous Karateka and *Prince of Persia* games,
  246. originally released for the Apple II home computer in the 1980's,
  247. have both seen modern HD remakes.
  248. And the 1983 animated laser disk game, *Dragon's Lair*,
  249. with ditzy Princess Daphne has been ported to just about every system imaginable.
  250. "Please save me!"
  251. "The cage is locked. With a key."
  252. "The dragon keeps it around his neck."
  253. "To slay the dragon use the magic sword."
  254. Remember Pauline? Damsel of the classic Donkey Kong arcade?
  255. Well she's also been revived.
  256. First in 1994's Donkey Kong for the Game Boy
  257. and later in the Mario versus Donkey Kong series for the Nintendo DS.
  258. Each game features a rehashing of the old excuse plot
  259. with Pauline being whisked away by the giant ape during the opening credits.
  260. *"Mario! Please help me!"*
  261. The now iconic opening seconds of the 1987 beat-em-up arcade game *Double Dragon*
  262. has Marian being punched in the stomach, thrown over the shoulder of a thug, and carried away.
  263. In several versions, her panties are clearly shown to the player while she's being abducted.
  264. The game has been remade, released, and ported to dozens of systems over the past 25 years
  265. ensuring that Marian will be battered and Damsel'ed for each new generation to enjoy.
  266. Most recently Double Dragon Neon in 2012 reintroduced new gamers to this regressive crap, yet again
  267. this time in full HD.
  268. The pattern of presenting women as fundamentally weak, ineffective or ultimately incapable
  269. has larger ramifications beyond the characters themselves and the specific games they inhabit.
  270. We have to remember that these games don't exist in a vacuum.
  271. They are an increasingly important and influential part of our larger social and cultural ecosystem.
  272. The reality is, this trope is being used in a real world context
  273. where backward, sexist attitudes are already rampant.
  274. It is a sad fact that a large percentage of the world's population still clings to the deeply sexist belief
  275. that women, as a group, need to be sheltered, protected, and taken care of by men.
  276. The belief that women are somehow a "naturally weaker gender"
  277. is a deeply ingrained, socially constructed myth, which is of course completely false
  278. but the notion is reinforced and perpetuated when women are continuously portrayed
  279. as frail, fragile and vulnerable creatures.
  280. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that all games that use the Damsel in Distress as a plot device
  281. are automatically sexist or have no value.
  282. But it is undeniable that popular culture is a powerful influence in our lives
  283. and the Damsel in Distress trope as a recurring trend does help to normalize extremely toxic, patronizing and paternalistic attitudes about women.
  284. Now I grew up on Nintendo. I've been a fan of the Mario and Zelda franchises for most of my life
  285. and they'll always have a special place in my heart, as I'm sure is true for a great number of gamers out there.
  286. But it's still important to recognize and think critically about the more problematic aspects
  287. especially considering many of these franchises are as popular as ever
  288. and the characters have become world wide icons.
  289. The good news is that there is nothing stopping developers from evolving their gender representations
  290. and making more women heroes in their future games.
  291. It would be great to finally see Zelda, Sheik and Tetra as the protagonists of their own games.
  292. And not just mobile DS games, I'm talking full-on console adventures.
  293. OK, so we've established that the Damsel in Distress trope is one of the most widely used gendered cliches in the history video games
  294. and has been core to the popularisation and development of gaming as a medium.
  295. But what about modern games? Has anything changed in the past 10 years?
  296. Well stay tuned for Part Two, where I'll be looking at more contemporary examples of the Damsel in Distress trope.
  297. We'll look at all the dark and edgy twists and turns and see how the convention has been used and abused right up until today.
  298. Then we'll check out some games where developers have tried to 'flip the script' on the Damsel.
  299. I would like to extend a big thank you to all of my backers on Kickstarter
  300. who have continued to support me and helped make this video series a reality.