Before you watch the video, please note that the content is graphic, violent and the subject matter can be triggering to domestic abuse victims.
If you can’t watch, there is a transcript here along with a list of the games in the video that contain spoilers.
…when female characters are damsel’ed, their ostensible agency is removed and they are reduced to a state of victimhood. So narratives that frame intimacy, love or romance as something that blossoms from or hinges upon the disempowerment and victimization of women are extremely troubling because they tend to reinforce the widespread regressive notion that women in vulnerable, passive or subordinate positions are somehow desirable because of their state of powerlessness. Unfortunately these types of stories also help to perpetuate the paternalistic belief that power imbalances within romantic relationships appealing, expected, or normal.
While it’s common knowledge that female characters aren’t treated as well as male characters in media texts, it’s really jarring to see a wide range of examples, from all genres and systems that show just how pervasive the trope is.
The first time I became aware of the Damsel in Distress trope, or the use of the abduction of a female loved one to move along the plot and show character development in a male character was in a Media Studies on the topic of Narrative Structure. Vladimir Propp’s theory distilled the folk tales of his time into thirty-one different stages and seven broad character types, his observations while based on a relatively small sample, unfortunately still ring true for many media texts of our time. Note that in his analysis the Princess and Prize are both the same broad character? I remember consciously thinking at the time that it was pretty awful, but what I didn’t realise was that unconsciously I had accepted it as a necessary truth. I mean the hero did go to all the trouble of saving the Princess, of course she would be in love with him, how romantic right? Why wouldn’t she be considered his prize? I found myself confused when I encountered media texts that didn’t conform to this narrative ( my mind has drawn a blank in giving you examples), and at times I felt cheated out of my fairytale ending. As I was getting mad, I realised that I wasn’t considering these women’s feelings at all, these women weren’t objects, they were living breathing people (in their universes) capable of free thought and making their own decisions.
Then it all started to make sense, why guys complain about the ‘Friendzone’ and how they are such ‘Nice Guys ‘. Why wouldn’t men believe that women were walking sex dispensaries, that all you need to do is input kindness and they output sexual favours? If the large majority of media texts perpetuate the Damsel in Distress/Princess as a Prize trope, then why wouldn’t they be confused when encountering the world of dating when they swoop in like Captain-Save-A-Me and receive nothing in return? These may not be messages that they consciously digest, but they are there in the subconscious and without realising we can fall into the trap of reducing women to mere objects. Video games are the ones being analysed here, but we don’t have to look very far into other narrative vehicles to see this same trope emerging, books, films, and even religious texts have stories of men being rewarded for their good deeds with one or many female companions to be enjoyed in a sexual manner. The truth is loss is a great motivator and when done correctly can be used to facilitate the healing process for the player. However, the problem with this particular trope is that in an effort to appear edgy and cool writers have now pushed it to terrifying limits.
The Damsel in Distress: As a trope the damsel in distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must then be rescued by a male character, usually providing an incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest. This is most often accomplished via kidnapping but it can also take the form of petrification, a curse or demon possession. Traditionally the woman in distress is a love interest or family member of the hero; princesses, wives, girlfriends and sisters are all commonly used to fill the role.
Damsel in the Refrigerator: A combination of the Women in Refrigerators trope and the Damsel in Distress trope. Typically this happens when a female character is killed near the beginning of a story but her soul is then stolen or trapped and must be rescued or freed by the male hero. Occasionally time travel or some other form of resurrection may be involved in the quest to bring the women in question back from the dead.
Disposable Damsel: A variant of the Damsel in Distress trope in which the hero fails to save the woman in peril either because he arrives too late or because (surprise twist!) it turns out she has been dead the whole time.
Euthanized Damsel: A combination of the Damsel in Distress trope and the Mercy Killing trope. This usually happens when the player character must murder the woman in peril “for her own good”. Typically the damsel has been mutilated or deformed in some way by the villain and the “only option left” to the hero is to put her “out of her misery” himself. Occasionally the damsel’ed character will be written so as beg the player to kill her.
These would not be so bad if they weren’t overwhelmingly happening to female characters and these are all the more troubling because of the current inequality that women face all over the world. By constantly showing the brutalisation of women, we as a society become desensitised to it, it is normalised. In the video Anita makes the very important point that these negative messages are not part of a great plot to keep women oppressed, but are as a result of thousands of years of keeping the status quo, ignorance and in many ways lazy storytelling. I feel that in some ways is actually worse than if there was a great conspiracy. At least with a conspiracy there is a conscious effort to increase the objectification of women, and we can pinpoint the root of the issue, and eliminate it. With it being so unintentional, it’s harder to get people to see how wrong their behaviour is. It’s like calling out someone on their racist remarks, they immediately get defensive.
Attitudes can’t be changed overnight, but talking about it is good, it’s a great step forward. We have to be realistic, Anita does not hold all the answers, and I don’t always agree with everything she says, but I think what she’s doing is great. She’s creating a starting point for dialogue, challenging the industry to hold up the mirror again and re-evaluate what it’s doing.
I’m looking forward to the third video because she promises to discuss the inverted Damsel in Distress (Dude in Distress?) and hopefully she’ll discuss ways that the trope has been subverted, I really want her to talk about how awesome Bioshock Infinite was, because it was!