October 25, 2021

… the problem with Tropes v. Women.

Let’s get to digging this hole.

It is fundamentally hard to argue with Anita Sarkeesian.

I mean that in two distinctly different ways; the first is that she is obviously an intelligent, well-versed female gamer who has studied the medium on which she is doing her web-series and is capable of pulling up some of the most heinous examples of the subjugation and disrespect that women have traditionally been subjected to. She obviously does note that this is something that all entertainment mediums are tackling, but she quickly skips over this because she’s not focusing on Hollywood; she doesn’t cover the sensualisation of the female characters in the Transformers movies, for example, because it is outside of her remit. Her whole case is based on video games as a medium and there is plenty of fire-power available to fuel frankly dozens of videos and thousands of discussions on the subject of the Damsel as Victim. Note that I do not say “Damsel In Distress”. Damsels are not always in distress, after all. I know this might be a little picky, but distress for me is defined as “Extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain.” When many damsels are rendered unconscious, frozen in ice or crystals, turned to stone and such forth, I cannot term her to be in distress. She is a victim, no doubt. She is the object and the ultimate goal, but she is not capable in such a position to really hold the title of “Distress”. Either way, this is merely arguing semantics; the female as victim is a major part of video games and has been for decades. It’s very difficult to argue against her on this front.

The second way that it is difficult is that the hateful and vile abuse that Ms. Sarkeesian was subjected to when she Kickstarted this whole project entitled “Tropes vs. Women In Video Games” has empowered her to the point of near untouchable. Even if your case is well-structured, logical, reasoned and informed – you are still tarnished with the same brush that many anonymous trolls already defiled long before we got to make a reasoned opinion on her eventual work, the first part of which was released last week. To take on Anita and her work is to gingerly step onto ground that has been scorched, salted and piledrived into a smooth finish for Anita to merely skip over, without much in the way of resistance, because we practically made her whole case. We gave this person the motive and the reason for her work, and it’s very difficult for those of us now trying to make an actual assessment of her work to do so without having to cross what is already defiled ground.

However, cross it we must. Because as polished as Anita Sarkeesian’s video is, there was notably a distinct lack of… something.

There is no doubt that Anita Sarkeesian is very well-versed and well-rehearsed in her chosen line of work. She doesn’t really deserve the abuse; but neither does her first video show her deserving of praise either. Anita Sarkeesian’s first mistake fundamentally was to not make absolutely clear that this is not solely limited to the world of video games; hell, the long-running television series Law and Order (of which I am a massive and unashamed fan!) still regularly employs the Damsel as Victim trope. We see this in many legal dramas. We see it in many drama shows full stop. We see it in movies all the time; the female as victim, the female as objective, the female as trophy. Anita Sarkeesian does try to clear this up, but ultimately skips over it rather quickly without pointing out that this isn’t always necessarily a criticism of games; rather, a criticism of the social acceptance of it. As time has gone on and video games have become more mainstream and open to all genders of all ages, the whole spectrum has levelled out somewhat. She obviously mentions Krystal; a character who was due to be in her own Nintendo 64 game but ultimately ended up the damsel as victim in Starfox Adventures. I admit this was probably a huge mistake; Starfox Adventures has aged more gracefully than perhaps others would give it credit for but Krystal’s dumbing down was perhaps just a bit too brutal. It would have been nice for her to exist as Lara Croft; as a warrior in her own right.

Chun Li. I dare say, more Street Fighter than any other character!
Chun Li. I dare say, more Street Fighter than any other character!

But there are plenty of examples earlier than Lara Croft of the female as warrior, the woman as power; Blaze Fielding, from Streets of Rage. She is NOT a victim; in fact, hilariously in the games, it’s the men who often get kidnapped and held hostage where Blaze Fielding is the nimble, trained martial artist out to save them. She is a strong female presence and easily one of the few I identify with from my youth. Sure, there were those legs that seemingly went on forever. But aside that, she wore a leather jacket and wasn’t really slutty (except that boob tube. Even Jill Valentine will tell you the pitfalls of wearing such a revealing choice of clothing in the middle of a crisis!). Just a strong police woman with a serious work ethic and a good moral code. You have Tyris Flare, from Golden Axe. Okay, sluttier I’ll grant you but she’s no damsel. She’s equally as prominent and powerful as her male counterparts, if not moreso; Ax Battler lacked personality whilst Gillius Thunderhead was a little bit comical. Tyris Flare was the crystalline heroine; the warrior princess of her day. With her skimpy plated bikini, short sword and fiery red hair, Tyris was not merely eye candy but a serious component in the battle for sexual equality.

Both Tyris Flare and Blaze Fielding are notable because they are not made as the main characters, it is true; but ask people to name characters from those series and no doubt they would be the first names to pop into your head. What Tyris and Blaze had, even in the early 16-bit era, were strong identities. Midst the tropes of saving girls, they shone brighter than anyone else in spite of and perhaps because the industry was often fascinated with the idea of saving women. Except very few of the games I played in the day had that trope; I remember examples of it, no doubt. You had The Revenge of Shinobi, for example. That’s an obvious initial one. Ghouls and Ghosts is another. The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy one more. But equally, you had plenty of good examples otherwise; remember that Amy Rose came much, MUCH later in the Sonic world, and that she isn’t herself always a victim. So we can count the earlier Sonic titles as a refreshing change of pace. I reviewed The Immortal yesterday; another game where there is no female victim; if anything, you could argue all the victims there are male. Gods, another prime example of a story with little female interference, and no female victim.

You’d think for all the toil and examples that it was heavily skewed towards females as victims. But I went through lists. I checked my old back catalogue. I’d be willing to suggest and be happy to debate the idea that the female as victim is, whilst an obviously cheap and lazy storytelling medium, also one that is not as over-used as Anita Sarkeesian would perhaps like us to believe. And there are plenty of games where women, quite rightly, dominate and have become synonymous with their franchise despite the men supposedly being the main characters. My guess is that if someone said Street Fighter, one of the first names to pop into your head would be Chun Li. Ken, Ryu, E-Honda, Balrog, Bison – all supposedly more important, but it’s Chun Li we remember. Same with Mortal Kombat; I’d be willing to bet a tenner that most people would remember Sonya Blade first. And it’s only in the latest Mortal Kombat that Sonya has gone all uber-slut. It’s a pitiful reflection on Netherrealm Studios that they allowed that to happen. Sonya was never overtly sexual; a sports top or tank top and well-fitted trousers. That’s the Sonya I remember. That’s the Sonya I love. This new one with inhuman boobs and a top that just about covers the nipples and not much else? Kinda not Sonya Blade to me. If you wanted slutty boobage in Mortal Kombat, there was always Kitana…

Of course, in recent years we have had the eponymous Lara Croft. We’ve had Zelda games, which are based on obvious medieval clichés such as the female as victim. We’ve had the frankly laughable Gears of War series, a series where even its creator Cliff Blezinski doesn’t seem to realise how grossly sexist it is at times. And I dare say if he can’t see that, he’s missing out on the rest of the generic, boring and distasteful clichés and tropes the series dumps out at an alarming rate. Women are being objectified; but the objectification is a relatively modernistic agenda. And rather than blame video games and those making them, I dare say some of the reasoning behind this is that society has changed, and not for the better I will agree.

Anita doesn’t perhaps understand that the vile feedback she got – that, unfortunately, is the market speaking. That’s who games are aimed at; anonymous, power-hungry misanthropes with little experience when it comes to women and the female identity in general. The weirdest part is whilst we can be disgusted at the reaction she got, we can’t argue that this isn’t an important thing to note. They are who games are aimed at, and they are being spoon-fed arguably traditionalist military identities and lifestyles which have excluded women, or objectified them in some degree. With the onus in the world now on international politics and the numerous wars we have faced, the balance of power in the social structure has once more fallen on the brave young men fighting for their country. Sometimes “women” are mentioned, but perhaps not as regularly as they perhaps should be. We continue to stride on without coming to terms with the changes that have happened and are there; we’re still tied down to traditionalist ideals and concepts because they come so easily and readily to hand.

So, if we accept that this vile black void is the market, and it needs to change, what do we do next?

For all Anita’s wonderful eloquence, she, at least at the start, is woefully short on suggestions on what we can do to change the perceptions and do something. Personally this is something that bugs me; it’s fine to complain about something, but we can be too downtrodden and disheartened. Or we can revel too gleefully in it without offering any alternative ideas. It’s very easy to make a case for and against the Female as Victim trope; easy to make because there are examples. Easy to argue against because there are many, many wonderful alternative tales out there which can be enjoyed that do not slip into such an old and overworked storyboard. We can do that. But having solutions? Ideas of your own? That’s hard. Very hard, and it’s this which so far puts Anita Sarkeesian’s whole project into jeopardy. She has come down and become very much the patronising teacher, wagging her finger and telling us what her old students used to do. She offers little that is constructive, save for pointing out obvious examples of the tropes so we know where her case is coming from.

Even facts can be subjective; for me, Princess Peach is every bit as much a strong female as Lara Croft. Peach does get kidnapped. A lot. There’s no denying it. But equally, play many of the RPG variants and Peach is not a two-dimensional character merely kidnapped for the sake of it. She’s smart. She’s funny. She’s compassionate. She’s more human than Mario can ever hope to be, and even in the middle of her castle being held to ransom, she’s often in these cases very capable of getting messages to Mario, or making friends and using her wiles to move around. Strength is not always in fighting back; sometimes it is knowing HOW to fight back, what your limitations are. Peach uses her strengths often to great effect; sure, Bowser kidnaps her. But he is himself a generic trope as a result. Mario is a generic trope by constantly feeling the need to go and save Peach. Whereas the female in question is a far more rounded persona than either of the two males fighting over her as some kind of possession. Peach has over the years confounded expectation to become somehow more than the sum of her parts, more than she was intended for. It’s a more complicated debate; dumbing it down as being painfully simple is doing Princess Peach the biggest disservice of all, by ignoring the development of her character over the years in lieu of the mute Mario and the always-evil-laughter Bowser. Peach IS the most important character. The universe revolves around her, in some cases and games quite literally. When given the chance, Peach is easily the most interesting part of a Mario game. Does that suggest that Nintendo have a bias against women, or that Peach is a generic trope? Or do we, perhaps, accept that Peach has over the years evolved and become a much more complicated individual to pin down? A female character that one moment seems helpless whilst the next is smart, sharp and very, very wry. And in her role as victim, she simply has Mario wound around her little finger. I wouldn’t be surprised one day for Mario to toil across the mushroom kingdom on hearing her call for help, only to actually find out all she wants is for him to unblock her lavatory. Actually, from my time in the Mario games, it’s something I’d assume Peach does. Or would do. Every day, if she had the choice. But it’s probably not an epic tale of love and kindness for Mario to run across the landscape only to spend ten minutes plunging her u-bend. Don’t. Just don’t. I know how you want to take that. Peach can play the victim; and clearly would do even for her own personal gain. She comes across to me as that kind of woman.

Princess Peach. Now this is a character who throws a spanner in the works...
Princess Peach. Now this is a character who throws a spanner in the works…

Perhaps this is the problem with the whole discussion. Identifying women as victims is honestly a bit too simplistic. There are of course examples of the trope straight-up and we can be mindful of those, but there are clear examples like Peach and even Princess Zelda where their original function has, over time, broadened somewhat. They are still at times expected to play the victim; but the victim isn’t always helpless, isn’t always cut off, isn’t always victimised. It’s important when dealing with a trope of this nature that we learn that where some games have had women as victims, you equally have the likes of Streets of Rage – where, you can argue, the victim is played by a male role. There are examples of the flipside; the industry has positively revelled at times in the idea of turning pre-conceived notions and clichés on their heads, like doing away with Game Over screens and making lead roles immortal or throwing a bunch of kids into a virtual world to be rescued by, arguably, the nerdiest kid on the block who somehow then becomes the most cool kid in the process.

Try Zombies Ate My Neighbours!, where the female alternative is given as much power as the male lead, and where many of the victims are also male. The female is given every bit the power of the male lead; even turning into a big fuzzy beast-mutant when the need arises. Julie is every bit the equal of Zeke. The game makes no qualm that men are equally victimised as women. It’s perhaps amusing that a game that heavily mocks and borrows from traditional science fiction and horror clichés and tropes is perhaps the one game that turns them all on their head at the same time and bucks the trend, the one game which in the process of mocking and lovingly pushing these traditional ideas also pushes equality, acceptance and fun for the sake of it. There is no agenda; no men are better or women are better. Equality. That saving the world from werewolves, vampires, mummies, zombies, aliens and a whole host of other movie monsters from spiders and ants to creepy plants is something we can ALL enjoy, whatever identity we assign ourselves.

Anita Sarkeesian will go on to make more videos and further her case. But she must be very careful. There is already a risk from her first video that she’s very one-sided, and if you are seen as one-sided you are perhaps seen as pushing an agenda. Anita needs to be completely aware that she treads a very fine line.

Finally; I am all for Anita Sarkeesian making her videos the way she wants them to. I do not want to dictate how and where she chooses to take her little web series. However, I would like to remind her that she has a world watching her; an entire market arguing over her and I would perhaps respectfully remind her that she does have a duty in her role as investigator and journalist to offer the bigger picture. I have listed no more than a few of the counter-examples, and I could go on forever. I’d love to sit down and debate it with her; actually, I think it would be fun. I think there is much to be learned from Anita in much the same way I hope she’d feel there is much to learn from some of us men who grew up on gaming but agree that times have to and are changing. That would be a great and enjoyable experience. I’d do a “call me” sign here, but I fear that might slightly undermine my whole argument there.

I am a firm believer that there are two sides to each story; often where I find myself irritated by something, I often remind myself – and others – of titles that do those same things right. Anita Sarkeesian is doing one side of the coin but, if she is not careful, then she opens up a market for someone who be her nemesis and the antithesis of all she does; paving the way for the Anti-Anita, a person who can argue and debate that her whole agenda and series is nothing but wasted air and money. She must tread this carefully as she is, I think, trying something very daring and very new. I think it’s fantastic what she is doing. I really do, and I commend her and will watch her videos. But that doesn’t mean I am blind to the pitfalls ahead of her. That doesn’t mean I, as a blogger and writer, should not throw in my occasional two pennies. Maybe she’ll counter herself later on. I’m all for it. I think it would be great to see her also provide counter-arguments, especially as it ensures she isn’t seen as some kind of overly-overbearing ultra-feminist type. She sort of tried with Zelda but I think she missed a big trick by not talking more about the characters and focusing too much on specifically assigned roles.

And if we are to accept that women are poorly represented in video games (and seeing how things have developed in the last few years, I feel I am more on Anita’s side here than I would ever have expected!), then we need solutions, not facts. Facts are both indisputable and disputable in equal measure and it’s not the easiest topic to discuss, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface here and yet I feel passionately that women are an integral part of video games, both as victims and as heroes, villains and supporting cast. Are women poorly represented nowadays? Yes. Heck yes. Oh god yes. From females in fighting games now were proportionally a tenth of the clothing they used to years ago to the frankly strange change we’ve seen in Lara Croft and her friend Sam as “victims”, from Gears of War to Sonic the Hedgehog, I dare say women are being poorly maligned. But, crucially, I’d suggest that this has ramped up in the last ten years or so. The world has changed, is changing, and perhaps we need to somehow steer the good ship back into less rocky waters. I don’t wish it to run aground any more than anyone else. What else would I talk about then? Politics?!

My overall point is, Anita Sarkeesian is an interesting figure. And I, for one, am interested in what she has to say and no, I don’t always agree with her. We don’t always have to agree with people. But she’s got an audience and a market. If she strays too far into an agenda, I have no doubt that there will come someone who will fill that opening she leaves for herself. She deserves not pity nor derision. She has a case to make; and I’d like to hear more of it before I judge her too harshly.

But I’d at least like to think she knows that she is on thin ice. Her first video has already for me left her on visibly shaky foundations. I am interested with what she has to say; but she’s going to have to be careful about how she says it. It would be a crying shame if after all this fuss and all these debates that she falls on her face over such small, seemingly insignificant details and underestimating their importance.

Good luck Ms. Sarkeesian.

I dare say you’re going to need it.


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