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What To Do About Digital Damsels?

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I’ve never been a particularly serious gamer, but video games have been a throughline of my entertainment and media life since the old black-and-white Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? game on the Apple that sat in a corner of my childhood dining room. That means that playing as a man trying to rescue a helpless woman has been a throughline in my life for those 20-odd years, as well. The casual nature of my gaming means that I’m just coming to something that’s been bubbling among gamers for a while now: Anita Sarkeesian’s feminist critique of the industry’s fascination with damsels in distress.

The video is great and you should watch the whole thing when you can. Sarkeesian uses montages of cutscenes and gameplay footage from throughout gaming history to illustrate her argument. The thesis of that argument, at the 10-minute mark in the video:

“So the damsel trope typically makes men the subject of narratives, while relegating women to the role of object. This is a form of objectification, because as objects, damseled women are being acted upon, most often becoming or reduced to a prize to be won, a treasure to be found, or a goal to be achieved. The brief intro sequence accompanying many classic arcade games tends to reinforce the framing of women as a possession that’s been stolen from the protagonist.”

Later, Sarkeesian points out that when male protagonists are themselves imprisoned, it’s to provide the player with a puzzle to solve—the man gets to be the ‘architect of his own escape.’ All of this is true, and the evidence Sarkeesian provides is broad and compelling. She also shows this stuff is ongoing, and endlessly recycled in both existing franchises and new games.

We know from social scientists that violent video games and media do not cripple the chronic viewer’s capacity for empathy or produce violent behavior. However intuitive that hypothesis may be, and however frequently it’s repeated in the wake of mass murders, it is not born out by the evidence. So I’m suspicious of conclusions about media impacts on real world behavior when those conclusions appeal to me as viscerally as they do here. When your gut wants to believe something, that’s a good reason to slow down and be skeptical.

Sarkeesian seems sensitive to this, and steers her conclusion into a much more defensible, narrow claim: “Just to be clear, I’m not saying that all games that use the damsel in distress as a plot device are automatically sexist or have no value. But it’s undeniable that popular culture is a powerful influence in our lives, and the damsel in distress trope as a recurring trend does help to normalize extremely toxic, patronizing, and paternalistic attitudes about women.” None of this is about tearing down gaming or gamers – Sarkeesian is one – but rather about creating a feedback loop that can help our entertainment better reflect and reinforce our values. Nobody’s trying to take away your toys, gamers. Sarkeesian just wants us to think a little harder about what we’re playing with. Amen.