Anita Sarkeesian’s First “Tropes v. Women” Video is Out

Yep. After all the shouting and yelling and accusations and whatnot about pretty much everything but the videos in question–largely revolving around a backlash against their funding and a counter-backlash against the ultra-horrible misogyny embedded in much of that backlash…

…we finally have our first video!

So much for the guys who thought she’d just take the money and run. Or whatever that was supposed to be.

Quick reax based on partial viewing…seems good so far, though nothing that exceeds the sort of work done by, say, Lindsay Ellis  on women in movies at Chez Apocalypse or Campster’s gaming-focused stuff at Errant Signal.   The discussion of subject v. object in games did remind me of something I read recently by Todd Alcott about superheroes, though:

(Technically, the true protagonist of The Avengers, is, of course, whoever is on the other end of the celestial jukebox that Mr. Bigrobe is talking to.  This turns out, eventually, to be a guy named Thanos, and Mr. Bigrobe turns out to be a guy named, er, “The Other.”  The “protagonist” of a story, the way the Greeks used the term anyway, was the guy who set events into motion.  Thanos wants The Tesseract, The Other sends Loki [the “ally”] and The Chitauri to get the Tesseract, and it falls to Nick Fury to stop those guys from doing that. This, technically, makes Nick Fury the antagonist of The Avengers. To make this distinction seems picayune, but, in fact, this protagonist problem is why so many superhero movies suck — it is inherent in the genre that the protagonist of the narrative is the bad guy.  The moment you have a main character whose job it is to run around stopping things from happening, you have a reactive protagonist, which means a weaker narrative.  When you have a weaker narrative, you end up throwing all kinds of nonsense at the screen, hoping that no one will notice that you have a reactive protagonist.  This is, incidentally, why Batman barely even shows up in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies — he understood that the protagonist of his Batman movies had to be Bruce Wayne, not Batman, and that, for his narratives to succeed, the bad guys had to be reacting to the actions of Bruce Wayne, not Batman reacting to the actions of the bad guys.)

The true protagonist, the true actor, in all of the Super Mario platformers is BOWSER. Mario has more agency than Peach as a player avatar, but he’s fundamentally reacting to Bowser, instead of really acting to achieve anything in his own right. He’s a superhero through-and-through, no different than Spiderman or Nick Fury.

The question may well be open as to whether or not Bowser’s more interested in Toadstool or Mario as an object, too. What if Bowser’s only kidnapping Toadstool to get Mario to go through his troops and traps to rescue her? What if he’s not actually interested in Peach as a possession (as alluded to in Sarkeesian’s “damselball” bit) but is only looking for the challenge, and knows of no other way to goad Mario into accepting it? What if Bowser doesn’t really want Peach at all?

And, weirder than that…what if Mario and Peach both know this?

More later.

Edit: Okay, it’s later.

For the most part I liked it. She did a good job bringing out issues of empowerment and objectification to a popular audience.  I saw two (surprising) issues here, though.

First, it’s barely about games per se. Sarkeesian analyzed her subject games strictly as narrative texts, without any real thought being given as to the reason or motivation for these things from a ludological perspective. Her “players” might as well be viewers, and the games might as well be television. I’m very surprised by this one; anybody who talks or thinks or writes critically about games has been absolutely buried in arguments over ludology v. narrativism, and the war over that sort of thing ended because almost everybody now realizes that you need to look at them through both lenses instead of one.

“Empowerment” in games is as much about play as it is about anything else. A playable character is always more empowered and enjoys more agency than a non-playable one from a strict gameplay perspective. She didn’t really get into that much, and it surprised me. Sure, she’s a media critic and not a gaming critic, but you really must address these things if you want to talk about games in 2013.

Second, it doesn’t have much of a temporal perspective. It treats the Zelda and Mario series (which are nearly completely the objects of analysis) as one big unit, instead of works that evolve over time with the changes in overall culture.

That’s somewhat of a problem with Mario, since Mario has evolved to become a larger franchise with players more used to the playable Peach of the modern franchise than kidnapped object Peach of the “core games”. While you can argue that Super Princess Peach for the DS isn’t a key game in the franchise, or than Peach’s surprisingly active role as an intermittently playable character that plays a key role in her own escape in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door doesn’t really count, or that Super Mario Brothers 2 was an outlier due to the whole Doki Doki Panic thing (as Sarkeesian does), it’s really hard to argue that Mario Kart doesn’t really “count”. Those games are as popular as the platformer, and an entire generation grew up on those games. They ARE Mario to a big, big audience of gamers. You can’t arbitrarily discount that.  Sarkeesian doesn’t even really address it, though; she just focuses on the “core” games and leaves the others aside.

It’s a big problem with the Zelda games, though, because that evolution over time is by far the most interesting thing about them. Yes, Zelda started off as little more than a plot device in Legend of Zelda.  Over time, though, she’s become a more and more interesting character in her own right, and has started playing more and more of a role as a sidekick instead of a mere object. Sarkeesian did bring up Zelda’s Sheik and Tetra personae as examples of welcome subversions of Zelda’s traditional role, but didn’t really mention that process of change and evolution.

The omission that REALLY surprised me, though, was Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. That’s a game where Zelda is, absolutely, positively, one hundred percent a core character from pretty much beginning to end. Her personality is refreshingly more like the feisty Tetra than the passive Peach.

She’s also extremely important from a ludological perspective.  The way in which the player controls her when she’s using her possession mechanic is the very thing the game is named after.  I wouldn’t even necessarily call her ghostly state in the game “dis-empowered”; her ability to possess Phantoms in Spirit Tracks is as vital to success as Link’s whole werewolf curse thing was in Twilight Princess.  The player is quickly taught that Link’s quest would be utterly impossible without her.

It was a grand step forward, a fun mechanic and a welcome counterexample to the standard trope. So where on earth was it? Maybe Sarkeesian is saving it for the followup where she talks about “flipping the script”. I certainly hope so; the game doesn’t get anywhere near enough recognition.

In any case, I’m looking forward to the next one. I’m especially interested in seeing how she deals with Princess Rosella in Sierra’s King’s Quest IV, since that game’s as clear a reversal of the standard trope as you can get, and by a female game-maker besides.

Another Edit: Shouldn’t give the impression that I’m entirely critical, so I’ll name two things that really worked for me too. That story at the beginning with Dinosaur Planet and Starfox Adventures? Gold. Journalism worth watching in-and-of itself even if you never watch the rest. (Which you should.)   The transformation of the main character of Dinosaur Planet to damsel-in-distress in Starfox Adventures really is sketchy as all hell.

Also gold? That sequence with all the female characters shouting “help!”. It really, really nails down just how formulaic and lazy this sort of thing is. The big takeaway of this for me is that the damsel-in-distress is used because it’s easy. It’s a trivially obvious way to motivate a presumed audience of boys and young men.

That’s why I’m so interested in how she addresses King’s Quest IV. Not only because it’s an obvious and incredibly prominent subversion of the trope in the history of electronic gaming, but because it gets into the fact that PC games had a different audience. It was still primarily male, but usually older, better off, and less interested in adolescent power fantasies. The entire adventure game genre is rife with titles that either subvert this trope or ignore it entirely, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

NEW EDIT: Okay, embed’s fixed.

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7 thoughts on “Anita Sarkeesian’s First “Tropes v. Women” Video is Out

  1. Claire N says:

    I think it’s fair enough to talk about franchises without specifically addressing their temporal aspect; being a franchise makes a title a conceptual object, and the sum of the thing (if there’s no RADICAL change later, or perhaps even if there is) is going to have a certain appreciable taste (~mm, sexist!). Especially from the outside – or from the perspective of a neglected or slighted demographic. ‘The Legend of Zelda’ is such a big-deal name, has been for so long, that I’d be very surprised to hear it had outgrown the link-saves-princess association in popular consciousness – it seems important (it makes sense to me) to really, definitely, make the point that there’s a lot of damseling in that franchise. Without distracting from the point by mentioning the minority specifics that you do. Acknowledgement of sin is more important that complete rigorousness? Maybe that’s dishonest of me.

    It’s fair to consider changing times too, of course, but I don’t think that choosing a broad perspective is a necessary weakness in this first video. I’m not convinced that this series is aimed at games-educated viewers, or gamers with a terrible amount of investment in intellectual consideration; I think it’s mostly about covering the stuff that’s.. not obvious, but common sense, to those viewers? So that people who give less of a shit can be cut off via link before they say anything about ~over thinking. I’m very interested by your post, but I think I appreciate it more as a response to her project than as something that should have been included IN her project. Stepping stones, you know?

    • craigbamford says:

      I’d highly recommend Spirit Tracks if you haven’t already played it. And, honestly, some of the most beloved examples of the series (Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask among others) don’t have damsels at all. I get that one shouldn’t get bogged down in specifics, but Sarkeesian’s too well-versed in media and cultural criticism not to recognize that she needs to be intellectually honest about her subjects. She wants to provoke debate, after all, and there’s already been enough intellectual dishonesty about all of this.

      Besides, the exceptions are generally what make Zelda interesting.

      I agree with you absolutely that the video will need to be evaluated in conjunction with subsequent videos. I was writing this “on the fly” to a great extent as I watched Sarkeesian’s video, so I didn’t find out that she was going to be looking at subversions and reversals until later. Like I said, I’m very interested in what her take on King’s Quest IV is going to be, since that game very specifically and very deliberately took a potential “damsel” (who Sarkeesian identified as one, even, in her Tumblr on Kings Quest III) and made her one of adventure gaming’s most recognizable and beloved protagonists.

      • Claire N says:

        I’d actually never heard of Spirit Tracks! I’ll certainly keep it in mind. I’m really not much of ‘a gamer’ at all; sometimes I play games and there are some titles and series I’m super, super fond of, but.. I’m far too familiar with gatekeeping (knowledge-based and gender-based both) to be inclined to call myself a member of the gaming community. So you can see why the video worked from my perspective – Zelda doing much other than tower-sitting hasn’t made its way into my Nintendo experience for whatever reason. I’ve played a handful of the older games, I know some basic stuff otherwise from pop osmosis. Maybe it is Sarkeesian’s job to introduce me to the exceptions to the rule.. but on the other hand, since she calls her series Tropes vs Women, maybe not! Like I said, I AM glad to learn about said exceptions here.

  2. craigstern says:

    About this:

    “‘Empowerment’ in games is as much about play as it is about anything else. A playable character is always more empowered and enjoys more agency than a non-playable one from a strict gameplay perspective. She didn’t really get into that much, and it surprised me.”

    I don’t understand this criticism. The narrative trope of “getting damsel’d,” of being “removed from the action, pushed aside, and made helpless,” is necessarily both narrative and ludological in nature. It’s not just a plot point; it’s a way to prevent you from actually playing a female protagonist. I think Sarkeesian makes that point pretty clearly starting at 17:12.

    • craigbamford says:

      I was considering it in relation to the Spirit Tracks issue, where Zelda plays an important role as (what amounts to) a playable character, as well as Peach’s active role in Paper Mario. (And, of course, in Super Princess Peach.) You do play female characters in those games, just as you play one in Super Mario 2, Metroid and Doki Doki Panic. I don’t think the damsel role has much to do with whether or not a character is playable; non-playable female characters are rife even in games with no damsels at all. I get how the damsel might exacerbate that, but I see that as a deeper issue even were damsels in distress to disappear tomorrow.

      The issue, as I said, is that she didn’t discuss play at all. She was looking at these games solely through the lens of their narrative superstructure, and (by and large) she was discussing games where the narrative superstructure was largely irrelevant. As I said in my edit, the damsel trope is mostly used because it’s a cheap ‘n easy way of giving the player some plausible stakes in the conflict. Those stakes only matter in these games insofar as they deepen the player’s connection to the game’s systems and visual design, so they’re barely bothered with at all.

      The player as a player wasn’t really brought up much, including in that section you mentioned. I can understand the choice, but it did surprise me.

      • craigstern says:

        I get what you’re saying. However, we should remember that Sarkeesian’s purpose is to expose sexist tropes in gaming, much as she has done in other media in the past (e.g.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DInYaHVSLr8 ).

        “But games aren’t like other media,” you say. “They’re interactive!” True. However, although Sarkeesian may not refer exclusively to the player as a player, I’m not sure she really needs to do so to make her point here. It’s not like there’s some long tradition of games where female characters are active in escaping capture through cut scenes, but aren’t playable. “Active in narrative” versus “actually playable” is a distinction worth making, but it’s pretty tangential to her point here.

        Further, just because we can name a few outlier games, that doesn’t mean her point is unsound. (The exceptions prove the rule, etc.)

        That said, I do agree that I want to see where she goes from here. This is just the first video in what is planned to be a rather lengthy series, after all. If the series ends and there are still huge gaps remaining in her criticism, then I’ll be more apt to pick nits.

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