Firstly, if you’re an MRA or misogynist who’s come here to view new and interesting ways of abusing Anita Sarkeesian, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. To use a cricket analogy, You play the ball, not the man, so there will be no discussion of personal history, politics or other such nonsense.
What I am trying to do is give anyone interested in genuine debate surrounding Tropes vs Women a grounding in the issues that are brought up in the Damsels in Distress series of videos and suggest things that, if you want to try and rationally debate the salient points, you would need to counter to have an effective argument. I am not going to do your arguing for you! I personally agree with the broad message that is presented in Tropes vs Women, what I’m interested in discussing is ways that message might be critically engaged with.
The central thesis in the Damsels in Distress series is that women (and men) are put into gender stereotyped roles by objectifying female characters as damsels in need of rescue and this has a negative effect on the people that consume video games. The way this is presented is in a fairly light-hearted, dispassionate style with numerous examples taken from games across the spectrum of time, quality, budget and genre. It seems galling that this fairly innocuous premise and methodology has been so voraciously attacked, but what’s worse is that all the attacks have at the core a vicious streak of hatred and misogyny. The reviews of the series I’ve read and watched all skim over the content of the series, usually by claiming they’ve got numerous arguments against the points raised, but can’t be bothered or haven’t got time to express them, and directly attack the character of Anita Sarkeesian. I have no problem in saying that this is a bullshit method of critique and its proponents are intellectually dishonest.
To counter the arguments presented in part one of TvW: Damsels in Distress you must disprove the following –
1. Objectification exists in games or;
2. Objectification reinforces gender roles or;
3. Gender roles have a negative impact on men and women.
When TvW claims that someone (man or woman) is objectified, what does that mean? Objectification is to present or regard something as an object. This is not to say the object can’t be beautiful, have an interesting character or features or be engaging, but it does mean that they only exist in relation to another character, usually through implied or explicit ownership. The typical features of an objectified character include a lack of agency and character growth or development.
The character the player takes control of, pretty much by definition, cannot be objectified, unless we argue that the player is objectifying his own avatar, but this is taking nitpickery to the nth degree. Mario, as a character, has control over his own story, to a large extent. He can walk, run and jump wherever the physical limits placed on him by the game designers allow him to go. He can defeat any monster or puzzle placed in front of him through judicious use of force and intellect. Princess Peach, on the other hand, cannot defeat monsters or solve puzzles, and is explicitly designed as a reward for players, a token they collect, at the end of the game.
The huge number of games cited as examples within the Damsels in Distress series, ranging from some of the most beloved franchises in gaming history (Mario, Zelda, Castlevania) to modern indie and low-budget darlings (Castle Crashers, Fat Princess, Super Meat boy) clearly show that female objectification exists in games and at an alarming level. Female characters are presented as prizes to be won or objects that have been stolen from the players, sometimes both.
To counter the assertion that objectification exists in gaming, you’d have to argue that the examples in TvW are not representative of games. The easiest way of doing this is providing examples of games that that don’t objectify people and proving that they are more culturally significant than the games cited by TvW. I say easiest, I mean the only and most difficult, as it’s practically impossible to argue with a straight face that the existence of some games that have female protagonists (Beyond Good and Evil, Heaven’s Sword) can somehow counterbalance the swathes of games that don’t or that they are more culturally relevant to the vast majority of gamers.
What about the idea that objectification reinforces gender roles? I’d like to digress with a couple of examples of characters from one of my favourite game series – Bioshock. The Bioshock series has some great female characters, but I’m going to focus on two specifically, Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum and Elizabeth.
Quick question, who is the more compelling character, Dr Tenenbaum or Elizabeth? While Elizabeth seems like an interesting and engaging character, there’s actually not a great deal of characterisation within the game. She starts off as a literal damsel in distress, a princess in the tower (her father is the de facto ruler i.e. King of Columbia), but is quickly freed by the protagonist Booker DeWitt. Elizabeth and Booker help each other to escape Columbia only to find out that Booker is one of the infinite versions of Comstock/Booker that oppress Elizabeth throughout the Bioshock multiverse. In a reversal of the usual trope, identified by TvW, Elizabeth kills Booker and escapes her destiny as a victim. Which is good, right?
Possibly. Elizabeth spends the vast majority of them game as a passive companion to Booker. She may throw ammo and money his way, but she doesn’t display true agency until the very end of the game in a cut scene (when she attempts escapes on The First lady, she is immediately forced to land by Vox Populi troops, she can’t fight them, so her agency is immediately taken away from her by the developers). She is completely reliant on Booker and while the ending undercuts her status as Booker/Comstock’s possession, it all feels too little, too late. She has no life outside the game and the only backstory revealed is her relationship to Booker/Comstock. She is essentially born, then kidnapped, held captive and rescued by her father, that’s her story. She is also portrayed as a very beautiful, young woman.
Compare this with Dr Brigid Tenenbaum. Tenenbaum is a scientist with no relation to the player character. She discovers ADAM, helps to invent plasmids and creates the Little Sisters. She has a personal fiefdom in Rapture and has plans of her own, including protecting the Little Sisters through the use of Big Daddies. She manipulates the player and also genuinely helps him when he is at his lowest point. She breaks Jack’s mental conditioning and uses the Little Sisters to aid Jack during his final confrontation with Frank Fontaine. Tenenbaum has genuine moments of self-doubt and has believable motivations for her actions that are completely unrelated to the player character. Tenenbaum is rarely seen in the flesh, most of the interaction with the player is done via the radio, but when the player does meet her, she is depicted as an elderly woman with no obvious ‘attractive’ qualities.
The great difference between the two characters is not just their representation. Tenenbaum has agency, Elizabeth, except for one Trope-defying moment, does not. Tenenbaum is not an object for the player to ‘win’ or ‘collect’, Elizabeth is.
It is entirely possible for characters to be interesting and compelling and also have no agency. This lack of agency is a key part of an objectified character. Elizabeth, for the vast majority of the game is an object the player is trying to protect and rescue. While we can debate her relative value as a character, she is most certainly a card carrying damsel in distress.
This objectification of Elizabeth puts her firmly into a submissive position for most of the game. Booker is able to continue his story in whatever way he sees fit, almost without reference to Elizabeth. Tenenbaum is never objectified and is never submissive; she forces her narrative onto the player, not the other way around.
To counter the assertion that objectification reinforces gender roles, firstly, you have to agree that objectification takes place and then argue that it has no effect on gender roles. You could do this by providing examples of characters that have been objectified that don’t conform to gender stereotypes. You then have to prove, as in the first example, that these examples of characters are more culturally important than the numerous examples provided by TvW. Good luck, I’m sure there are loads, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head…
Objectifying anything leads to it necessarily becoming a submissive and passive object. If the vast majority of women in video games are presented as nothing more than submissive and passive what effect do you think this will have on the people playing the game? It reinforces the gender role that says that women are submissive and passive.
When the majority of lead female characters are objectified, submissive, and passive characters it does have an effect on the people playing the game. The reinforcing of gender roles in the game may be subconscious, but it feeds into the same part of the brain that supports the notion that women exist only to provide food and sex to men. The order to ‘make me a sandwich, bitch’, the rallying call de jour for idiot man-children, makes explicit the implicit message of the vast majority of games that are currently produced.
Healthy relations between human beings need to be based on the notion that both parties have their own needs, desires and ambitions. If the common view, reinforced by the only media gamers regularly interact with, is that women are submissive, passive objects to be ‘won’ or ‘saved’ or whatever else is implied by the role, then healthy relations cannot exist.
Female characters tend to be objectified, but this objectification has a negative consequence for both male and female characters and therefore negative consequences for men and women outside of games. Gender roles are assigned based on this objectification, with male characters almost exclusively taking on a protector/avenger role. Men who complain that women expect them to be chivalrous must surely be able to see the irony in this, as this is the default setting in the vast majority of video games.
Proof of the effect of the stereotyping of gender roles comes from the massive amounts of abuse the gaming community generates as part of its attempt to stop basic human decency from ‘taking control’ of the internet. Despite the obvious fallacy that somehow feminists or SJWs are able to control the entire internet (you can start a website of your own guys, no-one can stop you), the prevailing commentary consists of sexually aggressive insults and death threats. Is it a coincidence that the common threats within game speech that you will ‘own’ someone or that you ‘raped’ someone are also played out in social media messages with alarming regularity?
I thought that it would be an interesting thought experiment to try and adjust people’s behaviour by appealing to their heroes in gaming – instead of what would Jesus do, I’d pick a gaming icon and posit what would Mario or Master Chief do. A cursory examination of playable characters from across the spectrum of the games medium shows that they would not necessarily give me the answer I was after. You could get innocuous Mario, who would jump around trying to save the Princess or Max Payne, who’d gun everyone down in an armed revenge-fuelled rampage. Protect/Control the Damsel or Avenge her Distress, there’s very little else to modern video game protagonists.
Perhaps the easiest way to counter the argument that gender stereotypes are harmful would be to show that you don’t fall into a gender stereotype. To a large extent, both MRAs and SJWs find themselves displaying aspects of the stereotypical male, just from different starting points. MRAs seem to believe that women are objects to be won and should be submissive to their own desires. SJWs are cast in the role of protecting or avenging man, which again takes agency away from women. To prove that gender stereotyping does not have an effect you need to cast aside your received notions of gender and actually act in a way that shows no fear or favour to one gender over another. This does not mean that you can retreat under the excuse that you treat all people equally badly. That just shows you’re a glorious shit-heel that delights in human suffering. To win the argument you have to engage in dialogue and dialogue does not begin with rape or death threats or white knight proclamations of protection. Dialogue begins with hello. So –
Hello, what brings you here today?