On Tuesday, May 28th, Anita Sarkeesian released the second part in her ongoing Feminist Frequency documentary series about women in video games. This second episode was the continuation of Sarkeesian’s investigation into the narrative trope “The Damsel in Distress”. The documentary takes an unflinching look at the role women are forced to play in video games and how they are often relegated to objects or motivations. Sarkeesian definitely feels free to connect her own dots in portrayal of women, and one could argue that she makes her own elaborate jumps without much explanation to the viewer, but it is not how she draws these insinuations, it is the sheer volume of games the industry has given Sarkeesian with which to make them.
Sarkeesian’s documentary has been the source of startling divisiveness on the internet. The outrage started with a series of hate mail and death threats sent to Sarkeesian when she first started a Kickstarter to make the documentary series, and has continued on in a petulant, ignorant, and shameful manner. Agree of disagree with Sarkeesian’s views, making a video game in which you can beat her up or flagging her most recent video an “inappropriate content” are not ways make eloquent or convincing arguments against her. To the contrary, they prove to the general public that Sarkeesian may have a point about how video games can give men a false sense of empowerment over women, and that certain men feel threatened by the points she makes.
Sarekeesian’s work has been documented, thus far, in two half-hour episodes available on Youtube. Essentially the documentary calls out video games from Mario to Zelda to Castlevania for trivializing women in their games. Specifically focusing on how many female characters are placed in a role where they must be rescued by male characters. Sarkeesian starts with the simple clear cut use of the role in classic games like Mario, where the rotund, red plummer must save Princess Peach time and time again. She then looks at how video games have created a false sense of edginess by evolving the damsel in distress trope into a series of violent acts against women. These examples range from the vengeful type like Max Payne, where a man attempts to deal with the murder of his wife and daughter by drowning the streets of New York City in a criminal bloodbath, to the Darkness II where a man must save his girlfriend’s tortured soul from the depths of hell. We have watched girlfriends/wives die in Gears of War 2, God of War, Prototype, Kane and Lynch, Infamous, Dead Space, and Bionic Commando, to name a few. While one can argue that game makers use this trope with varied success and seriousness, one can not argue is that it is consistently inserted into game to force players to feel something in what is otherwise lazy storytelling.
I am of two minds when it comes to Sarkeesian’s documentary. Part of me feels, in a completely objective sense, that her series is not all that well made. While she makes good use of examples to change the pace of her narrative, the documentary is more-or-less reduced to listening to her drone on about the topic. The problem with this is that it makes it look like she is the only one who cares about this issue. What Sarkeesian is sorely lacking from her documentary is any credible sources. It is like receiving a very convincing and well written paper about sexism without any sources being quoted or referenced. If you follow a link for more information she provides a currently non-functioning link to an article by Julia T. Wood and statistics from female abuse organizations. But where are the psychologists, the studies that she can point to in order to truly make her case? Either there are none, or she has not done the due diligence to find them. Until Sarkeesian can make her point using accredited testimony or studies, she is little more than someone standing on a soap box.
While there are other arguments to be made against Sarkeesian’s points, there are some irrefutable and universally accepted ideas in her hypothesis. The largest being that video games often fail to portray women in positive light due to their unimaginative plots. AAA gaming is the root of the problem, as Sarkeesian’s documentary spends most of its time talking about high profile games from big name publishers. So much time and energy is spent trying to make these games grandiose and deep, that relying on these tried-and-true story archetypes are the best way to make sure the latest holiday blockbuster is dumb enough that anyone can pick it up and play it.
Just as there are examples Sarkeesian uses that can be disputed, there are examples she failed to mention. What is the highly touted Guacamelee, but a prime example of a damsel in distress? Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon had the main character immediately rescue a woman who could not protect herself, then woo her through his violence. Dead Space 3 has Issac Clarke save his ex-girlfriend time and time again, and each time she falls a little bit more in love with him. Sexist or not, it is not hard to argue that video games, from a narrative perspective, have been stuck in the mud.
This is why whether you agree with Sarkeesian’s views of sexism in video games or not, you still should find value in her message. As its audience continues to mature, as the medium continues to evolve with new hardware, video games must find a way to become more than the stereotypical male power fantasy. It has become embarrassing to explain the plots of AAA video games that are riddled in contrived stereotypes and boring scenarios. Sarkeesian ends her documentary saying that she does not view the video game industry has inherently sexist or bigoted, but that the problem comes from cookie cutter design that is used to skip over a game’s thematic message and get to the part where they start making things blow up. Sarkeesian’s message may not be perfectly constructed or universally accurate, but that doesn’t stop her from pointing out an inconvenient truth about the present world of gaming.