Anita Sarkeesian and the Damsel in Distress Trope

In early 1986 Nintendo released the action-adventure video game The Legend of Zelda, and when I, a geeky eight-year-old, first got my hands on a NES controller and, with the press of a few buttons, took the sword from the grammatically-challenged old man in the cave, my gaming life changed forever. Even at eight, though, I wondered briefly why the game was named after the kidnapped princess and not the heroic Link in whom I placed my thoughts and hopes and fears.

As much as I love the early games in the Zelda series (I haven’t played any after A Link to the Past), I share many of the concerns of media and culture critic Anita Sarkeesian, who has a new video examining the “damsel in distress” trope in video games, even enjoyable and worthwhile ones.

Sarkeesian is at her best when drawing attention to problematic trends in pop culture that escape notice or too easily get a dismissive hand or defensive excuses. I’m less impressed by her assessments of individual works–she despised the show Dollhouse because the characters in the show, specifically the employees of the morally abominable dollhouse, were too sympathetic and well rounded. Because apparently human beings in evil institutions should be undeniably evil and repulsive. Like Buffy‘s vampires or something. So, well, we have different approaches to literary art.

Her first video in the series Tropes Vs. Women (embedded below) is quite good and worth the twenty or so minutes of your time. I had long noticed the “damsel in distress” trope myself, but hadn’t really thought of it as endemic or terribly pernicious. Alas, even my dear Vagrant Story, the greatest game that will ever be made, makes use of the trope, although, in its defense, the agent and inquisitor Callo Merlose, once taken hostage, uses her talents and skills to gain intelligence on her captors. She’s never really in distress, and the hero Ashley Riot doesn’t have to rescue her. She has an active, if minor role to play.

I don’t get the opportunity to play new video games these days, but I would love to see a big screen Legend of Zelda movie with Princess Zelda as the main protagonist, wielder of the Master Sword, bane of Ganon, and hero of Hyrule.  I envision Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Acker or Ziyi Zhang in the part.  Maybe she’d have to disguise herself as some point in the plot, in which case you have your Link.

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155 thoughts on “Anita Sarkeesian and the Damsel in Distress Trope

    • I think she does. Lots of adventure games have the basic story model of “go fetch the dingus.” A person ought not to be the dingus, a mere object rather than an actor in the drama.

      That it’s so often women rather than men who are the damsel in distress, the functionally inanimate dingus, who literally does nothing and spends the entire adventure helpless and powerless, waiting for a man to come and rescue them, compounds the larger cultural norm that women exist to look pretty to men, and men exist to actually do things.

      Young girls take lessons from media the same way young boys do, and if I had a daughter I’d much rather she took a lesson from video games that girls do things just as often and just as effectively as do boys.

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      • Oh Burt, defending the feminazi won’t get you laid, plus ironically you’re trying to do the “right” thing as a man, being the White Knight DEFENDING the helpless lady. Do yourself a favor and shut up, your opinion is worthless.

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      • There is also the idea of learned helplessness, a phenomenon that plagues girls/women with much greater frequency than men. I don’t doubt that the common portrayal of female characters as helpless contributes to this, among many other things.

        Children the age I teach are naturally drawn to and curious about power. It is why dinosaurs, super heroes, and princesses are all the rage. One of the more frustrating things is that the common princess characters are often quite powerless once the layers are pealed back; the children are responding more to the idea and perception of power than its actual existence. And most of these characters derive whatever power they do have from their beauty.

        This is starting to shift, with characters like Mulan and the girl from “Brave”, thankfully.

        Robert Munsch has a great book called “The Paper Bag Princess” which turns the trope on its head: “Princess Elizabeth plans on marrying Prince Ronald, who is practically perfect. However, a dragon arrives who destroys her kingdom, kidnaps Ronald, and burns all her clothes so that she has no choice but to wear a paper bag. Elizabeth follows the dragon and Ronald, and seeking to rescue her fiancé, challenges the dragon to burn forests with fire and to fly around the world. The dragon completes the tasks but after flying around the world a second time becomes tired and falls asleep. Elizabeth rescues Ronald, who is ungrateful and tells her to return when she looks more like a princess. Elizabeth realizes that she is better off without Ronald and sets off into the sunset to live her own life.”

        If I was being really cynical, I could gripe that the one asset Elizabeth seems to have is smarts and cunning, still denied the physical prowess seemingly exclusively reserved for men, but she is the protagonist, the hero, and gives the douchey prince his comeuppance.

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        • If I was being really cynical, I could gripe that the one asset Elizabeth seems to have is smarts and cunning, still denied the physical prowess seemingly exclusively reserved for men

          True, but the story also demonstrates that intelligence is superior to physical strength. Plus, as anyone who’s played D&D can tell you, melee fighters are pretty much useless against dragons unless they have magical support.

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        • “Alas, even my dear Vagrant Story, the greatest game that will ever be made”

          that is an utterly bizarre misspelling of “planescape: torment”.

          more seriously, while western rpgs offered some of the same dumb cultural trends as a lot of jrpgs (or made their own), a lot of the classics skipped past this mold (fallout, fallout 2, even some of the more traditional d&d black isle games) by either offering playable female characters or more open-ended manifestations that skip past the issues of the confines of story by allowing players to make their own as they advanced. the ultima series was generally very good about this, especially 5 (you rescue lord british, and can play as a male or female avatar) and onwards. (we will pretend that 8 and 9 never happened)

          even with planescape, while the nameless one is always male, one of the main storylines is about the abuse of love and romance. there’s no rescue, just the choice – which doesn’t have to be taken – of trying (and largely failing) to make amends.

          of course in fallout 2 you can participate in the slave trade (or shoot kids in both iirc) but such are the perils of freedom.

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        • Kazzy, do you think that even action princesses like Mulan or Merida from Brave can overcome the inherent problematic issues with princess culture? Peggy Ornstein has made some rather convincing arguments that princess culture in general is inherently problematic because of all the cultrual baggage that comes with it like the ideas about aristocracy and that some people are better by virture of birth. An action princess is still a princess.

          In a lot of fantasy aimed at boys, the hero starts of low and raises high. He might really be secretly royal but he still lived a formative part of his life as a peaseant or something similarly ordinary and has to work to achieve what he gets. With princess heroes, the hero starts high. Its inherently aristocratic.

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          • There’s a nice retelling of Cinderella online, where Cinderella is the witch. That’s a decent “ashes to riches”. (I can find the link if you want it?).

            Nausicaa also feels like a princess story, but with less of the baggage.

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          • Lee,

            I hadn’t thought about it in quite that much detail, but I agree that moving away from princesses or, rather, diversifying so that princesses are but a small subset of female characters, would be ideal. Mulan and Merida (thanks for the name) are a step in the right direction but not the final destination.

            Interestingly, I’ve read that some of the more untraditional princesses, such as Mulan and Merida but also Pocohantas and the girl from “The Frog Prince” or whatever it was are much less popular with children. I don’t know exactly what explains this phenomenon and I’m sure it is likely a number of influences. I fear that the conclusion people will draw is that little girls don’t want princesses of color of sound mind and body or with an independent spirit. My feeling is that it has much more to do with marketing, parent response, and things outside of the children themselves.

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            • There is just something about princess culture that seems so anti-small-d democratic to me even without getting into the feminist issues. Even if the princess is an action princess she is stil a princess with everything about aristocracy that it applies. What is it about princesses that draws girls to them whether they be traditional or action? Its not like boys fantasize about being knights of daring do. Can we not find a more appropriate in a small-r republican friendly thing for girls to fantasize about. I have political issues with princess culture.

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              • Lee,

                I don’t disagree with any of that. As I mentioned in my initial comment, young children in the target demo for these films are in a developmental stage predicated on explorations of power. Princesses are, or at least represent, power. It is also why super heroes and dinosaurs are also such popular themes… what is more powerful than a super hero or a dinosaur? So, if it weren’t princesses, it’d be some other representation of female power. Unfortunately, many of our examples of that are poor ones. The aforementioned princesses, “mean girl” culture, etc. We need to develop more and better positive female role models, for both boys’ and girls’ healthy development.

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              • Its not like boys fantasize about being knights of daring do.

                It’s not?

                I agree with you that there are enduring aristocratic/anti-democratic themes in “princess fiction”. But I think such themes are present in a lot of fiction.

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                • I can’t think of any current story aimed at young male children where the main character is a boy who is or wants to be a knight. The closest example is Disney’s attempt to make the Black Cauldron into a movie and thats from the 1980s.

                  Most boys fantasies are of them being wizards or superheroes or nerdy boys who get the girl or similar things.

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                  • “How To Train Your Dragon” was arguably a knight’s tale.

                    However, we’re also using “Princess” quite loosely. I’m not an expert, but I don’t know if Mulan or Pocohantas was “princesses” by any traditional, aristrocratic definition; they just got lumped in with the Disney Princesses.

                    Which doesn’t make your point about the broader issues arising from princess culture less valid… just that the term has become a bit of a catch all.

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                    • Mulan was from an aristocratic family, so she was at least nobility. Pocohantas was the cultural equivalent of a Princess, the daughter of somethnig close to a King.

                      In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup never takes on or want to the traditional violence, rowdy elements of warrior culture. He starts out and remains, a gentle nerd. Its more of a nerd rising to the top in jock culture story.

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                    • If Pocahontas counts as a princess, by your reckoning, Hiccup CERTAINLY counts as a prince. If your objection is to aristocracy, I’m not sure the point about violence and warrior culture is relevant (which are certainly introduced through some of those other male protagonist roles).

                      It is true that there are a wider variety of protagonist types available as male models (that is, after all, part of the problem with the whole princess culture thing). Although I don’t think a work needs to be set in an overt aristocracy to contain antidemocratic themes (after all, the modern world contains no shortage of totalitarianism outside the bounds of the traditional hereditary aristocracy).

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                    • I’m not denying that “nerd rising to the top in jock culture” is a theme that’s present. I’m not saying that every theme is How to Train Your Dragon is problematic! But we are talking about making the protagonist the child of the local king figure.

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            • My feeling is that it has much more to do with marketing, parent response, and things outside of the children themselves.

              Don’t forget raw familiarity. Kids have an expectation that a story will be or go a particular way. They seem to get disconcerted when they don’t.

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        • I love The Paper Bag Princess!

          In its defence, relativey few male characters in books for that age have their physical prowess particularly emphasized either. I’m just trying to mentally run through my three year old daughter’s favourites, and while the gender imbalance gets egregious, the difference between the actions of the overwhelmingly male protagonists, and the few female ones, is pretty minor – they all resolve things by cleverness, or finding compromises.

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          • My favourite (in the “aaaargh how dreadfu”) sense is the one where the (male) farm cat visits all the (farm) animals to get suggestions for what to give his mother (passive, without agency) for christmas.

            The billygoat suggests the gift of milk. Did the author not pause to contemplate where a billygoat would obtain milk?

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      • Why can’t a person be the dingus? You say it ought not be done but you didn’t explain why.

        In most older games, every side character was the “damsel in distress”. That’s because there’s only three character archetypes: mooks, side characters, and the protagonist. And it’s the protagonist’s job to save the world, which includes saving/helping side character, regardless of their gender. Having a female side character who kicks ass and takes names in a video game would be a distraction to gameplay and deprive the player of agency. So I don’t see how it’s a feminist issue at all.

        I don’t see your point in the last paragraph. There’s several games with a female lead, like Metroid and Lara Croft, but the fact is that the gaming audience is a majority-male demographic and developers make games that appeal to a core demo. Mediums with a majority-female audience tend to have female leads, and no one complains that that’s sexist. Do you want more female protagonists just for the sake of having more female protagonists? I guess I just don’t see why you’d expect developers to cater to a small minority of the gaming populace (i.e., feminists).

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        • gaming audience is not heavily majority male. in fact, it may be majority female.

          When everyone is asking for macguffins (say adom), then it’s fine. no gendering… not a problem.

          Developers that dont write games for women are stupid (why shoot yourself in the foot? lotta women gamers, and lotta guys who like girl gamers). Not saying that you need to change your porn so it doesn’t have the optimal timing for boys masturbating, bt if you can’t make it watchable for a girl, something’s probably wrong. At least for the big budget stuff.

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          • >gaming audience is not heavily majority male. in fact, it may be majority female.

            Kim, cite your sources.

            >Developers that dont write games for women are stupid (why shoot yourself in the foot? lotta women gamers, and lotta guys who like girl gamers).

            Why should they write their games for women? I thought your whole problem was that they already write their games for men, and that’s bad; swapping one group out for another group doesn’t solve the problem, it just changes what that problem is.

            For the record, I have no problem with game developers catering to men, since their audience is majorty-male.

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            • Casual games are heavily played by women. And they’re the fastest growing market share.
              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casual_game
              Jing. 74%.

              There are far more of these games made than “standard old fashioned” games.

              Why write games for women? because it’s stupid to limit yourself (which is basically me saying “write your games for people. if you write a good game everyone’s gonna play it”). See the Persona 4 discussion below. It’s not like boys boycott a game simply because it has eyecandy for women.

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              • >Casual games are heavily played by women. And they’re the fastest growing market share.

                Seems to me like you’re conflating two different things. If women are only a majority demographic in the casual gaming market (on platforms like iOS and Facebook), why are people like Anita saying the console market should change to cater to the casual market’s demographic? Why is she complaining about sexism in Super Mario and Double Dragon instead of Angry Birds? You’re doing a bait-and-switch when you say that women are a significant demographic in gaming but you cite mobile gaming markets, because no one is talking about sexism in that market, only in the AAA market.

                >See the Persona 4 discussion below. It’s not like boys boycott a game simply because it has eyecandy for women.

                Why do you want eyecandy for women? I thought sex-negative feminists like Anita wanted to eliminate eyecandy for men in video gaming. That’s the impression I got, since she spends so much time complaining about womens’ outfits and objectification (her comments on Ico are a good example of this, which she called one of the most irritatingly sexist games she ever played).

                If all you want is more sexy men, then I don’t think anyone will object to that. It’s not a radical request at all. But it’s also not what Anita is asking for.

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        • It’s not so much that a person should never be a dingus, but when you have a convention whereby one class of people is nearly always a dingus, and another class of people gets to run round doing things, it carries unfortunate implications, yes? Especially if historically the first class of people was considered to lack the capacity to be as effective at doing things as the second class.

          You see where I’m coming from, right?

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          • Yeah, but remember, the player, regardless of gender always plays as the protagonist. I am not sure I would jump to the conclusion that girls raised pretending to be Mario or Link are being conditioned to believe they are a helpless princess. Seems more likely they are actually learning how not to be the princess.

            In other words, it seems very possible that the trope is not working as the critics fear.

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          • No, I don’t.

            Women aren’t “nearly always a dingus”. Just look at how Anita defines the damsel in distress trope: the damsel doesn’t have to be a princess, doesn’t have to be in peril for the whole game/story, and the protagonist doesn’t have to be successful in rescuing her. All a character needs to be is a female who’s in trouble for some part of the story. Can you really call that a dingus? Virtually every male and female character besides the protagonist and mooks qualifies as a damsel in distress by Anita’s standards. This isn’t a damsel in distress issue, it’s just called being a side character.

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            • It’s a trope. it can be done well (Persona 4) or it can be done poorly.
              When sexism distorts who the damsel is (it can, after all, be a guy), it’s a problem.

              When there’s no reason someone needs rescuing other than they’ve got the idiot ball, that’s infuriating.

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              • Anita hasn’t explained when the trope becomes sexist. She herself admitted in her first video that not every game which uses the Damsel in Distress trope, but she neglects to actually explain how we can determine when a trope is sexist and when it’s not. Maybe it’s an “I know it when I see it test”? Who knows.

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  1. Hi, I’m a long time reader and occassional poster under Anonymous. This my first comment under a pseudonym. As you can guess, I’m a lawyer in real life.

    Sarkeesian is right about the problems with the damsel in distress trope. My issue is one that comes up with a lot of conflicting fantasies though, how do we determine what fantasies and daydreams are appropriate, who gets to indulge in them, and how should they be indulged. A lot of the male audience for damsels in distress tropes love believing that they are the hero thats going to save the girl and be rewarded with romance and/or sex. Its not necessarily a healthy fantasy for the reason Sarkeesian outlined and because real world romance doesn’t work that way. DNL made a plausible argument that a lot of the dating or even interactions with women in general problems that nerd boys have can be traced back to the damsel in distress trope. It should also be noted that not a small number of women have fantasies about being rescued to but they tend to enjoy these fantasies through books, movies, and tv rather than video games. So the damsel in distress fantasy is troubling but common. Should people be educated not to indulge in this fantasy or should it be considered as harmless.

    What I’m trying to get at in a rambling sort of way is that this a variety of the debate concering problematic entertainment and its impact on the real world. Whether its violent movies, pornography or rescue the princess fantasies, people have argued that certain forms of entertainment are inherently problematic. Are they? If they are, what can or should be done about it?

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    • Welcome, Lee — I hope you’ll comment more frequently!

      To be sure, “damsel in distress” with a powerful male hero rewarded for his efforts with sex (mostly symbolic but still there) is a powerful and ancient motif. And you’re right that women buy in to the fantasy too — I can see how a woman would love the idea of being at the receiving end of such intense desire as would motivate a strong, powerful man to risk all for the sole purpose of having her.

      One thing to note from Sarkeesian is that she treats video games as a valid cultural medium, a form of storytelling on an equal footing with legends and books and movies — one worthy of critical analysis. By itself, that’s important.

      Another thing is that there are two ways video games can be altered, and they should be so altered by way of encouragement rather than coercion. One is to have more female protagonists. There’s debate about whether the most popular female protagonist out there, Lara Croft, is hyper-sexualized to the point she cannot be taken seriously, and whether the authors of that franchise have or have not effectively mitigated that hyper-sexualization. The other is to have a sexless or autonomously-driven play environment: it doesn’t much matter in Halo whether a soldier is male or female under all that armor; big first-person RPGs like Skyrim allow players to fashion their own characters as male or female.

      Kim makes another point in her comment above that I rather like: maybe we can have a damsel in distress, but she does things. A game with an “escape from captivity” motif could be a whole lot of fun (again, I point to the latest Tomb Raider game). A two-player cooperative game with Prince Meleefighter moving in to the castle to rescue Princess Actuallyawizard who is at the same time trying to get out; once they meet, that’s when the real badasses move in. It could be done and it could be a whole lot of fun.

      Sarkeesian’s critique, and folks like us talking about it, are part of what it takes to convince the makers of these products that there is a market for differently-modeled games, games that tell different stories than the big strong man rescuing the helpless damsel in distress. Ultimately, it will be the market that addresses the problem — like all forms of storytelling, video games are successful or not to the extent they resonate with the larger culture.

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    • Others gave more thorough responses, but since for once I can be brief, I think I shall: There’s nothing wrong with a damsel in distress plot. There is something wrong when a large bulk of female roles are relegated to that. I mean, I have no problem with Steve Travers, but it’s be irritating if that were such a large percentage of male roles in any particular medium.

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      • I touched on this above. The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate possibilities for female roles but expand them. A DiD is a viable role, but should not be the only role. In work for children, negative portrayals predicated upon race, gender, and the like should be avoided, but otherwise the more roles, the better.

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  2. Damsel in Distress can be done quite well. I’m going to DEFEND the trope, as I savage it.
    In Persona 4, the trope is done well.
    The Damsel? Nanako — the protagonist’s young cousin.

    How is it done well?
    1) The Damsel actually gets some personality — serving as one of those “heart” characters (one that is kind, considerate, and everyone basically likes).
    2) The kid’s still in elementary school. It makes a LOT more sense for her to be incapable of fighting.
    3) The trope is openly acknowledged. She wants to be a princess.

    Now, let’s take another awesome, awesome game: Grim Fandango.
    Yer Dame in Distress shows up, looks pretty (and nice, and sinless), and then disappears. She shows up, but basically to heighten drama and do nothing but look pretty. In fact, most of the PC characters are men.
    This is somewhat mitigated by the noir setting…

    Monkey Island never needed a damsel in distress.

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    • Also, the character design in Persona 4 is… interesting. The protagonist (Yuu, laf if you’re gonna), is gendered male only by the barest of margins. His face, his mannerisms, are deliberately androgynous. If you wanted to think you were playing a female, the character makes it very easy (well, as easy as you can in a school where boys and girls wear different uniforms — then again, there is a trap character).

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      • Yuu never actual struck me as particularly androgynous, especially compared to thep protagonist from Persona 3, who is shorter and more slight. In contrast, Yuu from Persona 4 is much taller and has more obvious musculature. Part of this is that Japanese beauty standards lean towards the androgynous for men. I’m pretty sure that most Japansee would see Yuu as only being a man.

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        • It’s all in his gestures. I talked a bit to the character designer. Interestingly enough, the rest of the male characters (and the detective boy) were studies in homosexuality (way down on the dev’s list was “make it possible for Yuu to hook up with da guys” — I don’t think that got implemented.)

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  3. It fascinates me that we analyze this through the lens of women; what it does to them, what they don’t get. That’s all right and good.

    But there’s so little analysis of the Damsel in Distress trope through the lens of men. Thus far, we’ve one good observation, LeeEsq above, DNL made a plausible argument that a lot of the dating or even interactions with women in general problems that nerd boys have can be traced back to the damsel in distress trope.

    Despite the continued usage of Damsel in Distress, we’ve come a long way toward allowing women Agency; allowing them to even have a ‘playable’ character. Even that we’re discussing this is a good thing, it’s progress.

    But we don’t discuss men much. They’re the norm, and everything is compared to that norm without challenging it enough. I see is men stuck in the protector role. There’s not much room in that for any other scenario; for them to nurture or teach, for example; certainly no practice at being helpless. But I want to know: how often do you find yourself helpless? Don’t you want to nurture your family, maybe your employees, your friends? What about your view of yourself as teacher, as sharer of wisdom and guide on the paths of wisdom? Don’t those things matter, aren’t they of value, and more of your identity then your ability to beat up bad guys?

    (And just how often do we reinforce the bad guy within, that demon some of us have that wants to steal the damsel, to punch her in the stomach?)

    This stuff does matter; since our children seem to spend so much time immersed in video game (even our grown-up children and fellow leaguers). I question the reflections of manhood in video games. Gentlemen get sold short. But at least they get to play.

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      • Kim, it’s not just about inverting the stereotypes; that still buys into them. It’s about not having stories that allow for fully-rounded people. It’s not just that women don’t get to act, but that men only get to act in specific ways, and those ways don’t necessarily help them later in their lives.

        I’m all about letting girls have a role, letting them have agency. But I think we talk about that without also examining the boxes for boys, and the damage those boxes do them.

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      • Isn’t this called Rune Soldier Louis in English? Louis is a boisterous, hard-drinking womanzier prone to solving things by beating them up and thinking with his genitals. This doesn’t seem like much of an inverted gender sterostype to me. An inverted wizard sterostype yes but not a gender one.

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    • Zic,

      As one of a small collection of male early childhood educators, I take my responsibility as a male role model very seriously. For many of my students, I am one of just two regular male models, the other being their father. Yet they often have many female role models, including their mother, most if not all of their caregivers, and the vast majority of their teachers in the early grades. As such, they’re likely to encounter diversity amongst these women that they do not encounter amongst the men. So I take it upon myself to present multiple dimensions of myself, even if those dimensions are not necessarily truly reflective of me. I make a point that they see me in the block area and shooting hoops and playing catch and roaring with dinosaurs but also that they (and by “they” I mean the boys and the girls) see me in the dramatic play area with the baby dolls, coloring, painting, doing puzzles. I let them see me be strong and vulnerable, tough and weak, happy and sad, etc. Because they might not see another man regularly in their life save for their father until middle school, I work to make sure they see that men can be all things and anything. Some female teachers take this step, but many do not even consider it, for whatever reason. I personally think it should be a charge of all teachers to consider the role model they offer to their students, but, alas…

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      • Kazzy, if only we could replicate you, make sure every child, boy or girl, has at least one Kazzy in his or her life.

        You are addressing the men in children’s lives; men often missing or nearly missing. Part of the reason for this is that our myth mostly has men out defending, protecting, avenging, but rarely home tending the farm. Father’s mostly are gone to work, or live elsewhere. They are absent. That’s a very big part of why I said we should be examining this from the male perspective.

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        • Thanks, Zic. That really does mean a lot, especially considering the source.

          Interestingly enough, the dearth of male role models is an issue on many levels. I will say that the early childhood world is one not particularly friendly to men, with women often spearheading that culture. So, yea, it is a complicated situation, no doubt.

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  4. Interesting twenty minutes…

    My thoughts, which are clearly not PC.

    1) First two words that come to mind are Laura Croft. The genre bending trend that I see in video games involves the totally opposite trope. I believe this is substantially more common in video games. Build a character of a hot skimpily clad female who can kick everyone’s ass. This is the biggest trend in not just video games, but TV and movies. Buffy, Tomb Raider, Dollhouse, Underworld…. The idea is empowerment in a sexually suggestive way.

    2). The net effect of these condemned games is to allow girls to play Link and Mario. Everyone understands the helpless princess model, but by playing the non helpless role, the net effect is not, I would argue, to promote helplessness in girls, but rather to allow them to jump out of this role. Or they can play the hot martial arts expert character. Or the Japanese school girl who kicks ass character.

    3). In a world of might makes right with swords and fights to the death, which video games delve into, the damsel in distress trope is actually more accurate than the Amazonian warrior trope. News flash. In a barbaric world where the strong take what they want from the weak, women can and will be turned into possessions. This sounds horrible, and is. But the horror is against this type of world, not the natural response of humans within this type of world, which is one where women will indeed be forced to look to strong alpha males for protection, and one path to evolutionary success is to be the knight coming to their aid.

    4). The alpha male world is obviously bred into our DNA. There is a reason we are attracted to this trope. Gamers are playing to it to sell games.

    5). Considering how well women are doing compared to men now verses any time ever in our past, I think an argument could be made that video games and popular culture are in net effectively empowering women like never before. I could be wrong though.

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    • The net effect of these condemned games is to allow girls to play Link and Mario. Everyone understands the helpless princess model, but by playing the non helpless role, the net effect is not, I would argue, to promote helplessness in girls, but rather to allow them to jump out of this role. Or they can play the hot martial arts expert character. Or the Japanese school girl who kicks ass character.

      There is much socialization that says it’s okay for girls to play the boys role to partake in the action; girls are highly socialized to be accustomed to this. Where it’s difficult, from my feminist perspective, is that those same roles are rarely written for the girl. Girls read books where boys are the heros, but rarely do boys embrace books where girls are the main character.

      So we see a society where girls are flexible, able to imagine themselves as either gender. But boys are rigidly locked into male roles; rarely given the opportunity to empathize with a female character, and even rarer, with a female character who’s not helpless in some way.

      Boys star. Girls can be the boy. But the boy should not want to be the girl.

      That’s my issue.

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      • I’m certain there are at least a few porn games where the protagonist is a girl (designed mostly for boys to play). And we’re not even counting Cross Days, where most of the scenes are of a guy being molested, forced to dress as a girl, yadda yadda.

        And guys don’t seem to mind playing Lara Croft, do they?

        Persona 4 had some great things to say about the roles that people put on (you should definitely watch the anime, it has a lot to say about roles, and why we choose them. also about how to break out of the roles. Also, there are stripes.).

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      • As Don McPherson recently put it so well, “We don’t raise boys to be men, we raise them not to be women, or gay men. White people confronted white people to fight racism. Men need to confront men.”

        This was in the context of domestic abuse, but the problem he identifies has impacts all over the place – we (meaning not just parents, but the all of us through our interaction, our production of books and TV programs and ads and choice of T-shirt slogans) raise boys to accept only a very narrow band of action, speech, and feeling as acceptable for males.

        Girls being boyish, or women being manly, is broadly seen as acceptable – they’re raising their station. But boys being girly, or men being womanly, is seen as unacceptable – they’re demeaning themselves.

        That view only makes sense if you accept that maleness and masculinity are inherently superior to femaleness and femininity.

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        • There’s a character in Persona 4 who goes WAY out of his way at first to act manly. And gloomy, and “aggressive” (the “buzz off” persona of the loner).

          But its very interesting to see what you uncover beneath that… shell.

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        • I think Zic and Dragon make really good points, but let me spin it another way.

          I agree completely that boys are acculturated to not be feminine. I suspect some of this is innate with the boys and the parents (not sure of this), but I am quite sure it is consciously emphasized by many parents, and not just homophobic ones. The reason is — I would argue — that it is in general an unsuccessful strategy for men to be effeminate. Women may say they dig it, but I am not sure their actions always support their words. It is even a less successful strategy in male dominated cultures.

          That said, there are realms where we have created subcultures which allow the softer side of men to thrive. I see this as good.

          Let me say something now that may get me in real trouble. I could care less if my son or grandson are gay. But I sure as hell don’t want them to be weak. Of course I don’t want my daughter to be weak either, but what is a what is a minor drawback in my daughter would be a debilitating one in my son.

          Now the obvious retort to this is wouldn’t it be great if weak men were able to flourish in society. Interestingly, my answer to this would be that I would not jump to this conclusion before examining the real world consequences.

          That said, I am open to correction.

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          • There’s not being feminine, and then there’s not being feminine.

            Black guys don’t have trouble developing tons of verbal talent sparring against each other in rap.

            If a white 12 yrold uses eschew, he’s seen as girly/geeky/weak.
            White Folks Have Got a Problem.

            Roger, I can cite you sources on how much worse it is to be an effeminate boy than to be a tomboyish girl. But it’s not much worse, from what I recall. (old studies).

            A guy should never be afraid to be good at sewing, or cooking, or doing ballet. Ascribing to a role simply because that’s what society says is not being strong. It’s being weak — if you do it all the time. If you do it none of the time, you’re quite often being selfish.

            I don’t think it’s terribly innate for boys to be different from girls — until you get to puberty (at which point you’ve got a delicate balance of ingroup/outgroup, safety, nerves, and a whole other mess of stuff)

            Now, what do you mean by weak?

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            • I suspect it is innate. Not that this makes it right. I suspect desire to rape and kill ones distant enemies is innate too.

              I will let you define weak. I was tempted to use the word wussy, but knew it would be incendiary.

              Another thing to throw in the conversation is that one sign of NOT being weak is the strength to jump out of a stereotype, sometimes the stereotype is the strong, silent alpha one.

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          • I could care less if my son or grandson are gay. But I sure as hell don’t want them to be weak. Of course I don’t want my daughter to be weak either, but what is a what is a minor drawback in my daughter would be a debilitating one in my son.

            Roger, what I challenge is that feminine = weak.

            Women give birth. They survive horrific violence. And they still mostly manage to love and nurture. They are not weak.

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          • A weak woman is much, much more likely to end up with an abusive partner who at some point beats her to death, than is a weak man. I think it takes an awful lot of reduced social and career success to counterbalance that.

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            • Seems like a one dimensional view of life. The goals of child rearing reduced to making sure your daughter doesn’t risk getting beaten to death by an abusive man.

              I’d spend at least a bit of that making sure she is a good driver and doesn’t smoke.

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        • I think one reason why we see more aggressive women and fewer gentle men in media, besides what you mentioned above, is that gentle protagonists have the same problems are cerebral protagonists in that its kind of hard to portray both in visual media. In the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, the ones with Robert Downey, Jr., they had to turn Holmes from a more cerebral hero into an action hero because it worked better on screen. Showing Holmes intellect at work, his ability to scan and deduce things, required special effects. Watching an entire movie like that would be annoying. Holmes the action hero works a bit better in visual media.

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    • Buffy, Tomb Raider, Dollhouse, Underworld

      Two of these things are not like the others.

      I’m not a rabid Whedon-phile but part of the whole concept of Buffy and Dollhouse was to dress up actual, broken, multi-faceted people in trope clothing so that it would sell to the market and the networks. Yes, there’s a lot of fan service in both of them (Hello Vamp Willow) but there are some actual people under the tropes. Not so much in Tomb Raider or Underworld.

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      • I agree and deliberately made sure the list was wide rather than narrow. I would add the one dimensional school girls from Tekken and Street Fighter.

        I’ve noticed that my grandson is very, very resistant to playing these characters (nor will he gravitate toward Ventress or Ahsoka in Star Wars or the characters with eye lashes in Angry Birds or whatever). I am not sure if this is something that is innate, though I strongly suspect he picked it up from his dad.

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    • The might makes right criticism would make sense if a lot of fantasy media takes place in a might makes right world. The problem is that most of it doesn’t. Its not unusual for the villains in fantasy to possess more outright power than the heroes and believe in might makes right. A lot of fantasy media also takes place in a world at least at medieval levels of development. The Medieval period was a bit more brutal than our own but more civilized than might makes right.

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      • I guess I see it as often existing on the anarchistic fringe, in that place where you settle disputes with your broadsword, not a cry to the constable.

        So the question then becomes which trope is more true to reality in that world. The damsel in distress or the Amazonian she-warrior? Obviously neither is exactly true to life, but I would say Zelda is closer than Lara Croft.

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  5. My first thought was of Pratchetts witches, specifically Lords and Ladies, which I’m just re-reading. Magrat is a princess, well a queen-in-waiting, but she goes to rescue the king and gets very angry at the thought her role is to sit around doing nothing. She is also a fairly democratic character who seems to have earned both her witchiness and the kings heart.

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    • I love Pratchett’s witches – Granny, Magrat and Nanny Ogg are all very different in how they use power, but they all are undeniably empowered. I also liked the ‘young adult’ Tiffany Aching series (even though I am anything but young), and especially liked the last book where it turns out that the beautiful highborn girl _wants_ to be a witch and has magical talent, but has to fight the automatic prejudice (including from other witches, like young tiffany) that the pretty ‘princess-looking’ girl can’t be a witch!

      Actually princesses get a bad rap. One of the things I really loved about ‘Brave’ was that the role of the noble woman was redeemed. Merida doesn’t want to be a princess and that sets up the conflict with her mother, who is working hard to train her to be one. The mother comes around to seeing things more Merida’s way, BUT in the course of events, part of mother and daughter reconciling is that Merida realizes that her mother plays an important role and the lessons she’s teaching have value. The role of Queen is not just ‘ornament’ or ‘brood mare’ – she is crucial to holding things together.

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  6. Great post, Kyle! It always makes me happy to see guys writing about this kind of stuff; it shouldn’t be something that I find out of the ordinary, but it is.

    I think more female protagonists in video games (and in other media) would be great. It’s important both for letting girls take on any number of roles rather than just a couple, and also in that if the number of male and female protagonist roles could be equalized, there’d be more chances and perhaps more willingness for guys to identify and empathize with female protagonists. Women are accustomed to identifying with male protagonists (I loved and still love The Lord of the Rings, and not just – or primarily – for Eowyn), but the opposite does not seem to be as common.

    The point about women being presented as items rather than as people in the ‘damsel’ role is also a very good one.

    I think the point made by several people that it’s more culturally acceptable for women to be “masculine” than for men to be “feminine” is an excellent one. In books and (particularly with Hunger Games) in films – though too seldom in video games, as you observe – female action heroes are starting to be accepted, but guys with non-action roles, especially emotional support roles, aren’t particularly common or popular. (There are a lot of readers of The Hunger Games, where Peeta very much fulfills the role of emotional/moral centre and ‘dude in distress’, who dismiss him as being useless and a burden.)

    I think there’s a constant movement (and constant contestation) within feminism between the “women can do anything men do!” and the “femininity is just as good as masculinity” poles, and we’re currently much stronger on the former side. Moving forwards on both simultaneously seems to be difficult.

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  7. It seems to me that this post is pretty much silent at this point, but I would still like to comment my thoughts. While I see many great points that women/girls should be the hero (I do not disagree, there should be more), there should also be more women in video games as the villain. A female antagonist fighting against a male or female protagonist, or even both male and female working together. Yes, there are already video games with female villains, but there are also video games with female heroes. Maybe not many, but you can’t deny their existence played by both males and females.
    Most of the argument in the video is that video games portray too much damsel in distress. In my eyes, I really don’t see that many games released today where there is a lot of damsel in distress. Many of today’s games are first person shooters or mmorpgs (massive multiplayer online role playing games) along with rpgs (role playing games) like Skyrim and Fallout. I can’t seem to find MANY games that are popular, and recent that put females down in the sense of damsel in distress. What I can find is that a male is usually a hero. Is that a bad thing? No, it is not. The pendulum can swing both ways and it is not wrong for males to be the hero.
    It is wrong to not GIVE the OPTION to choose female or male in the game you play. You should be given the option to choose female or male in a game and therefore, the story will change to fit your choice of who YOU as the individual chose to play. No more only guy heroes and no more only female heroes. Like in Skyrim or Fallout or World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2, you should be able to choose your gender. Not necessarily choose your facial features and what not, but still, my point is relevant. The villain does not have to change, male or female, or non gender (robot kinda) all that changes is the dialogue and the ways that the characters interact with one another. A male hero can have a female love interest and a female hero can have a male love interest (for having a male with a male love interest and visa versa for a female, I don’t think that gamers and the industry are just ready for it, these things take time to sink in for people). We really don’t need to have damsels in distress, male or female. Isn’t saving the world or family or some ancient artifact enough? Well that is my two cents and I know that I probably won’t be given a reply, but I am glad that I have finally posted my opinions. Thank you for reading.

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    • Great comments. I agree completely that in a virtual world why not give the ability to create the persona of your choice?

      The more I think of it the more I think the guy who designed Mario may well have been a sexist, but his legacy was to empower millions of girls to choose not to play the helpless princess role.

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      • “It is wrong to not GIVE the OPTION to choose female or male in the game you play.”

        in most contexts i agree, i wouldn’t say “wrong” because that’s a bit strong but “perfectly obvious design choice” works for a lot of games. for others, especially as you scale down on the indie chain or scale up in the tightness of a narrative, you’re basically saying “don’t put out any games” because the extra work involved would be a nightmare.

        for something like skyrim, sure. for something like, for example, planescape torment, no way. anything trying to tell a specific story is a bit like telling novelists they need to write two versions of each book, one with a male lead and one with a female lead. or leads.

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  8. Not really a gamer, so I will mostly leave the OP alone (except to say that in other media, the issue to me seems currently to be less “damsel-in-distress” – in that it seems to me just as common that the Macguffin is often a male compatriot who gets captured and must be rescued – as it is that there are fewer female kick-butt leads. We need more Ellen Ripleys and Buffy Summerses, is what I am saying).

    But I just stumbled across this, and since the topic is “video games and gender”, it seemed a shame not to post it:

    http://youtu.be/iOgg5pzQ-A8

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