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The Dark Side Of Damsels in Distress: Video Games

Updated on February 15, 2015

The Eternal Damsel

What do I know?

I did not grow up on video games, I don't have that sense of connection to it that some long term players have, but I assume its similar to the relationship I have with children's films. The Little Mermaid was my all time favorite movie growing up, I knew all the songs, I loved watching it over and over. However, I still at one point took a step back and recognized issues within my favorite movies, especially Disney films. I studied film for three years so had to come face to face with the hugely misogynistic and racial prejudice portrayed in most of my favorite films growing up. It is a necessary development, it doesn't demean my experiences with the films as a child, or make them any less meaningful. The same has to be said of video games since children are now surrounded by hundreds of new games each year. I am a new gamer, only a few years, so I don't have that gamer history, the connection with certain games, but I have noticed that women are portrayed, 90% of the time, in extremely negative ways. Forget about the fact they will always be dressed in the most revealing, tight, and ridiculous outfits, the many women that inhabit video games are rarely portrayed in positive ways. And if they are, then they will normally be a victim, a wife or daughter whose been killed or kidnapped. The protagonists adventure begins, commonly, with the brutal deaths/attacks of women, who are being used as virtual pawns.

Whats A Damsel in Distress?

A damsel in distress is a female character that needs to be saved from a kidnapper by the protagonist. Someone who has no agency and who is there as both a device to empower the protagonist into action but also as a prize for when he succeeds. Sometimes he doesn't succeed but we'l get to that a bit later.

The most obvious Damsel in distress in video games in Princess Peach from Super Mario Brothers. She is taken hostage and its up to Mario to save her and claim him as his. In 90% of the Mario Games, this is exactly what happens. Its the same story regurgitated in different platforms. The Legend Of Zeda, Donkey Kong, Final Fantasy, Star Fox, and Earthworm Jim use this same story arc, and token female character. In most cases the Damsels aren't given real names, instead being given titles like Lady, or Princess, or Princess whats-her-name (Earthworm Jim), giving into the idea that they are secondary characters, we don't need them to have names, we know they are women, thus they need our help. The one consistent thing about Damsels is that they are not in control of their own agency, they have no authority, and they serve only as the protagonists push into action. They will nearly always be a love interest of the protagonist and when saved by them, will offer a kiss as a reward. The Important thing to note is that they are not really characters at all, they are props, something that will give cheap emotional depth to a story that could easily have been about a stolen painting. What does a Painting have in common with a Damsel? They are both someones property.

Sometimes however, the protagonist will not get to save the damsel on time, and she will die, in these cases, often developers will then send her 'spirit' to hell, and she needs to be rescued from there. Or they will hideously disfigure the damsel, turn her into a monster, or mutilate her, where she begs the protagonist to kill her, thanking him with her dying breath when he does. This is a dangerous representation, as it perpetuates the 'She was asking for it' issue with violence against women. All these women are literally begging to be killed.

What's wrong with the Damsel in Distress? People need help all the time, that's not what this Damsel signifies though, instead she promotes the idea that women are incapable, weak and passive. The Damsels are portrayed crying out to the protagonists, doing nothing but allowing their capture and waiting for someone to save them. Thus, they are portrayed as perpetually helpless, and always the object of desire. This is obvious in the fact that there is always a relationship between the Damsel and the Protagonist. The relationship between both pushes the protagonist into action, as if he wouldn't bother to save a woman he has no relationship. This has been seen time and time again. The idea that men can only help women if they are related to them in some way is constantly portrayed in the phrase 'think of your mother, wife, daughter'. This thought allows the idea that if your not directly connected to someone, you shouldn't really bother caring. The history of gender stereotypes also turns this into a bigger issue in its cultural context, Women have always been viewed as the weaker gender, the ones in need of help, not offering help. If our society is supposed to have overcome these social stereotypes, then why is the Damsel the video game developers most potent trope? Why is it portrayed in 90% of video games? And why is the opposite almost never done? Where is the Dude in Distress?

Its Named After Her.....But Its Not Her Story

The legend of Zelda's kidnapping, and her rescue!
The legend of Zelda's kidnapping, and her rescue!

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Thinking about plots that surround kidnapping or even (for video games sake) waking up in some unknown place, what happens if it's a man? He usually tries to fight his way out, figure out puzzles, pick locks, anything to get out of there! He is never in Distress (if we are to use the Damsel in Distress definition of the word which is 'in need of help', he might actually be distressed) he is instead, capable of figuring it out, finding his own way home. Its his story after all, why would we move to a different character to play the game? Well, we do when it comes to women being taken captive. A woman is taken hostage, and all of a sudden its somebody else's story, a male trying to prove his masculinity, and save her. Its insulting for one thing. If I'm playing this type of game I immediately want to know why I can't be the Damsel. The Legend Of Zelda proves that its never her story, even if its named after.

But of course, even virtually, its a man's world. Women are placed in video games for the titillation of the straight male players. if there's no love interest, its somehow a less desirable game. What's worse, if there's no graphic violence against these love interests then its a boring game, a game without depth. Many game developers glamorize violence against women in such games as Hitman, Bioshock and God of War, where they leave half naked female corpses simply lying around the game stage, or behind windows as you walk past. The difference between the way male corpses are thrown around is hugely different. They are dressed normally, they aren't sexualised, yet the women are. They are nearly always tied up, with clothing ripped off, and left in suggestive, provocative poses. The fact that they are nearly always chained up is a way of proving that she is property. There is no other explanation for this other than the titillation of the straight male players, a reward for buying the game perhaps? Here you've bought the game, have some chained scantily clad dead women to look at for free. Its not too much to ask developers, Stop leaving dead, eroticized women around the stage! Put some clothes on them like you do with the men! In God of war 3, you can literally use a half naked women to open doors, not by any normal standards, no you throw her at them, you then use her to prop open a door, which ends up crushing her, and if you go back to look at her mangled remains, guess what? Trophy!!

Violence against women in these games is getting more violent and more graphic. The women cry out for help, scream, choke, its so realistic and yet this is what bring players into the game, the realism. There's a problem with this though, the entire purpose of video games is the fact that you are an active participant in what's unfolding. Yeah your character might not be the one inflicting this virtual torture,but its still implicitly happening for the players benefit. This violence towards non playable female characters has even darker undertones unfortunately, in the either explicit or suggestive sexual assault that characters often have inflicted on them. The torn clothes, the chains, the bare breasts, these all scream sexual assault, even if its not in game footage, the suggestion is there. But why? Why sexual assault? Some argue that it gives a seedy, rough , evil feel to the game, and that it tells the players the characters are reprehensible monsters.

In the same way that women are literally treated like dirt in these games, by being referred to as whore, slut, bitch, ho, filthy, and being considered nothing more than sex objects, it implies gamers and developers can treat people any way they want in a virtual world, in ways in which they can't in real life, and that means treating the female characters like undesirable, yet desirable enough to have them there in the first place, pieces of meat. You can treat women oppressively in video games because there's nothing from stopping it. Why do people play violent video games? To do things they can't do in real life, with no consequences. Its that simple. You want to kill some people, do it in virtuallt reality, you want to rob someones car, do it in virtual reality, you want to watch a prostitute being beaten, do it in virtual reality, you want to see a girl get it in virtual reality.

Female NCP As Prop!

Texture, Growth, Realism and Grit

Newer games being released are trying to bring their characters closer to the real world, by portraying them like real people, instead of one dimensional characters. The Tomb Raider games prove that even these characters can be turned into realistic people, as Lara Croft has come from being a big busted, short shorts, adventure woman into a character with texture, depth, issues and a realistically proportioned body. Other Games that show female characters in this light are Beyond and Uncharted. However, sexual assault is used in many of these types of games to add another dimension, of growth, to the characters. In Tomb Raider, Lara is taken hostage (and has to find her own way out!) and there is an attempted sexual assault, implying not only the evilness of her captives, but again to show she is a woman! This is a heavily gendered plot device. Have you ever seen a man being sexually assaulted graphically in video games? Has he even ever been threatened with it? Sexual assault also happens in Beyond: Two Souls, and Dragon age, and not only is it a cheap way of characterizing a villain, and creating protagonist character development, its also ignorant to the actual damage sexual assault creates. Yes, what doesn't kill you will only make you stronger, except that's not true, at all. It can damage your psyche, scare you for the rest of your life, and leave massive emotional trauma. Instead, video games either suggest or explicitly show this, as a simple plot point, or background view/noise. If its meant as character development, How are male characters developed? Are they threatened with sexual assault? No, never. So why are we so acceptable of our female characters being assaulted? Yes scenes like these absolutely have us players understanding the danger our characters are in, we see the stage for the gritty, uncomfortable scene it was made to be, but again, how do you portray this same gritty scene if there's a male protagonist? The answer is, there will usually be a female NPC for the antagonist to mistreat in front of the protagonist, showing off his bad assery!

It seems to always come back to the mistreatment of women. The sensationalized, objectifying and always sexually explicit mistreatment of women.

Beyond: Two Souls

Just Plain Disturbing!

There have also recently been issues with sexual assault in Grand Theft Auto Online, where characters can be modified into being capable of committing sexual assault on other characters. They are characters that are naked, and can, I guess, hump other characters, however, they go even further so that when a character is being assaulted there is literally nothing they can do, they can't move, or kill the perpetrator, or escape in any way, which is an increasingly disturbing thought. That people thought this would be a good use of their time, but also that they put so much effort into making it a authentic as possible. Its a disturbing idea that this has become the next step in online gaming.

© 2015 belleart


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