Anita Sarkeesian released her third and final video of her series Tropes versus Women in Video Games. Up through the first two videos, I was fairly sympathetic with her message. Yes, I don’t think she provided the facts and figures to back up her point, but her general theme felt worthwhile.
In the first part, she defined the Damsel in Distress trope in the following way: a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing a core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest. Sarkeesian argued that the trope was prevalent in a large number of popular video game and helped normalize already pre-existing beliefs that people held that were harmful towards women. She used far harsher language than that, claiming the trope “normalizes extremely toxic beliefs.”
I can agree with her that this trope does show up in video games. I can also agree with her that we tend to adopt certain beliefs of cognitive structures based on what we experience in our daily lives. She did not, however, make the case that there is these sorts of extremely toxic beliefs that’s commonly held among people. If these beliefs aren’t commonly held, then what’s the danger here? There are lots of beliefs that we may hold that others probably don’t hold. That’s part of human nature. If these beliefs that were highly toxic were commonly held, then yes… they should be fought against. But unless they are commonly held, then honestly… what she’s doing is pointless.
The second part gets worse. I’m still sympathetic with her argument, but she’s started claiming that women in these video games were objects, stripped of everything that could potentially make them a person. They were things to be fought over. She showed examples of violence against women as well as showing games where they beg to be killed. She argued that all of this was designed to empower the male protagonist, devaluing and stripping the female characters of their autonomy (and life). The importance of this, in Sarkeesian’s view, was this:
Violence against women is a serious global epidemic; therefore, attempts to address the issue in fictional contexts demands a considerable degree of respect, subtlety and nuance. Women shouldn’t be mere disposable objects or symbolic pawns in stories about men and their own struggles with patriarchal expectations and inadequacies.
What? No… seriously… what? Yes, violence against women happens everyday. In times of war, women are raped because it helps break the will of the enemy. It’s horrible and almost never talked about. You’re not going to empower these women or help bring awareness to all the horrors women throughout the world suffer by making sure Zelda and Peach get nifty video games. In fairness, Sarkeesian’s goal at this point is to encourage the video game industry to look into different ways of storytelling rather than the Damsel in Distress trope it seems to rely heavily on.
You can see my thoughts on her arguments in my previous two posts. I wanted to give you a recap before looking at her third, and final, part in the series.
I lose all sympathy I had for her argument with the third part. I’ll be blunt. Her argument is so bad, it’s not worth totally recapping. At one point, when she was looking at games where there were male characters in distress in almost exactly the same situations as female characters were in other games, she said it wasn’t the same because culturally… women were viewed as weaker already.
Her exact words: The two may appear the same, but they don’t mean the same thing in our culture. This [damsel] is still a problem while this [dude] is not. Again because one reinforces pre-existing stereotypes about women, while the other does not re-enforce any pre-existing stereotypes about men.
Yes, I’m serious. She claimed that when it happens to women, it’s a bad thing. But when EXACTLY THE SAME THING happens to male characters, it’s not as bad. I thought we were looking at video games here. But the broader picture seems to say that women are victims starting out and the tropes only serves to reinforce it. Yeah, I’m serious. Her arguments seems to go along this line throughout all of it.
And she claimed the Spice Girls exemplified girl power in the late 1990s. The Spice Girls. The F’in Spice Girls????? She’s talking about a pop group that was designed by a marketing firm to appeal to teenage girls. They weren’t a symbol of anything other than how skillful marketing has become. Each song was designed to appeal to a specific demographic. Every appearance carefully choreographed. All to sell more of their merchandise. I’ll confess I liked their music. It was catchy and had a decent message. But to say they exemplified girl power would mean the entire phenomena of girl power, or even girl empowerment, is a marketing ploy to sell stuff. Then again, that may be what she thinks (since all her examples consists of shows and books that were around to sell stuff).
The most damning thing about her entire video series, and it’s truly highlighted in this part, is her assertions that women in video games are victims a priori. She seems to say that video games are misogynistic, if not the entire industry. Yeah, she doesn’t directly say it, but dear lord, it is heavily implied. It’s difficult not to take a measure of offense to it. I want to emphasize, I was very sympathetic to her arguments for the first two parts. She went way too far in the third part. Honestly, I’m left with a bitter taste in my mouth after watching that. And it took me three attempts to get through it once! I ended up watching Simon’s Cat to help refocus me.
Here. It might calm you down too:
Okay. Final thoughts on all of this. In a very merciful interpretation of her arguments, Sarkeesian wants to challenge the Damsel in Distress trope and really wants to see something else in video games. More female characters in the lead. Maybe different tropes coming to the forefront. I see nothing wrong with variety.
But she intentionally misinterpreted scenes in video games to make them appear far more misogynistic than they actually were. She may have done far more damage to her own cause by doing this. When a calm, rational discussion of the way women are portrayed in video games could be a good thing… when the face of the discussion is someone who relies in misinterpretations and overblown statements to make her case, there’s a huge problem.