Sunday, 2 June 2013

Taking feminism to video games

So a feminist thought she'd turn her attention to video games did she? Well the boys showed they wouldn't take her bra-burning antics lying down. How dare she!

Anita Sarkeesian, via Wikimedia Commons
Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian is making a series of three films exploring female characters in video games. So far she has released the first two on and YouTube.

The project was funded by backers on Heading up the project page on the site is now a video games style cartoon with the caption 'Thankfully Anita has decided to face down the trolls and continue the project.'

Damsel in Distress

Sarkeesian's videos explore the 'damsel in distress' trope in video games. She defines this as '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.'

She suggests that the damsel in distress has become the video game staple for female characters, giving examples of video games, from the earliest and most well-loved games, including Mario's Princess Peach and Princess Zelda, to more recent titles, which portray women as weak and incapable.

A male character will usually be the subject of a video game narrative, while female characters tend to exist as objects for male characters to rescue and/or receive as a reward for completing a quest. Sarkeesian suggests that repeating these tropes in video games 'helps to normalise extremely toxic, patronising and paternalistic attitudes about women'.

Criticising video games

Video games have traditionally been hugely male dominated, in terms of the people making them, playing them and the characters appearing in them. The balance has shifted a little in recent years, with increasing numbers of women and girls being drawn to gaming, but as Sarkeesian shows, the role of women in the games themselves has not really moved on in the genre.

Sarkeesian has clearly been interested in video games for a long time. She makes the point that you can enjoy something whilst finding some aspects of it troubling. I discussed a similar issue, in my post 'Is it OK to enjoy sexist films?'

But Sarkeesian received so much abuse on YouTube for her measured critique of the video games genre, that she has had to disable comments. If you want to read the kinds of horrible things people have said, she blogged about them here.

Henry Meynell Rheam, via Wikimedia Commons

Distressed damsels

The distressed damsel character is a problem that extends far beyond video games.

We grow up on fairy tales - Rapunzel is rescued from her tower by the handsome prince, Sleeping Beauty is woken from her sleep by the prince fighting his way to her, Snow White is brought back to life by the prince.

Before we can even read and write we learn about these helpless female characters who get themselves into sticky situations and wait around for a bloke to come and rescue them.

Thinking that her role in life is to dress like a princess and wait around for a nice chap to come and get her hardly seems a good way for a 21st century girl to begin life, and nor should boys grow up thinking they have to spend their time getting girls out of trouble.

Critiquing this trope in video games is one woman's attempt to reconcile the contradiction between enjoying an art work, whilst worrying about some of the assumptions about gender that it presents. And so we must help our children to enjoy these fairy tales and the characters they present, which are an important part of our cultural history, and yet also help them to understand that real life isn't like that, and nor are real men and women.

The fact that Sarkeesian was shot down for doing this says far more about the shooters themselves, and perhaps a certain cohort of video games fanatics, than it does about her project or the games by which it was inspired. And of course, by persevering with the project, she proved that 21st century women aren't damsels in distress.


  1. I hadn't watched Sarkeesian's videos til just now. Thanks for being the person who tipped me over the edge into watching them, very interesting :)

    It's been very obvious for a long time that video game plots are shockingly sexist, along with much of the content of similarly stereotypically 'teen/geek male' targeted media like comics.

    (Incidentally, I'm on a personal crusade to make everyone look at to help with this, but unsurprisingly most men don't see what the point of it is...)

    Personally, I found Sarkeesian's pieces pretty heavy going; and felt there was a little too much up-front rant before the meaningful and constructive discourse began.

    I would also have preferred it if there was more discussion about what might be done about it, and the implications of that.

    For example; taking the "euthanased heroine" and flipping it: would the disempowerment / empowerment balance be any different if a male were kidnapped then zombified, and subsequently put out of their misery by the female protagonist who loved them and whose motivation throughout the piece had been to save them?

    Clearly social domestic violence against males by females is not an endemic social problem, neither is objectification and/or disempowerment of men, but they would presumably be equally as bad as their gender reversed counterparts if we lived in a 100% gender equal society.

    Whilst I might disagree on some of the finer points I am totally behind what Sarkeesian is doing, and totally agree that the blatant sexism in games is unacceptable and needs to change.

    I guess that my only issue with what is said is that, by presenting the argument from such a strongly feminist standpoint, Sarkeesian fails to represent that this sort of consistently negative treatment of either sex by the other would be a bad thing.

  2. Thanks for the link to those dreadful comments. I would like to put some of them into a piece of work in my Life series. Lots of people were saying "ignore them" but they definitely shouldn't be ignored.