Context Matters Part 2: On the Toxicity of Damsel in Distress
Adrian Chmielarz

Hello Adrian,

I apologize, I didn’t realize the second part of your diatribe was up when responding to the first, and that explains my ending.

However, it seems that this second scribing contains the same problems as the first — you cherry pick in order to make your points, and accuse Anita of the same problems you possess. This is interesting in and of itself — maybe it goes three deep and I’m unable to see my own flaws, but rather then make this some sort of Russian Nesting Doll of accusations, lets skip ahead.

The first thing you ask for is proof as to the pervasiveness of the Damsel in Distress trope. This would require a heuristic analysis of all games made ever. This reeks of sealioning — suppose somebody did do a heuristic analysis of all games. What percentage would you require? You yourself said it didn’t matter if the trope was one hundred percent of early games. What about now?

Due to your misinterpretation of the trope’s meaning — you apply it to every woman who is ever rescued by a male as opposed to a female character who’s sole purpose is to be rescued by a man. You make a claim that I agree with — the usage of the trope was initially done because games had a limited amount of memory to allocate to story. This is similar to ministrel ballads or epic poems or any format required to condense storytelling to as limited a space as possible. However, once the limitations of memory were gone, shouldn’t the instaneous use of storytelling tricks designed for limited formats also be removed? It’s similar to walking around on crutches with two healthy functioning legs.

Now, I’d like to talk about your supposed contradiction in what Anita said about objectification. You make the claim that it’s contradictory for something to be an object with no emotional engagement, and yet entice the character and the gamer as proxy to act.

How would you explain the plot to The Big Lebowski then? Jeff Lebowski (the Dude) has no emotional attachment to his rug, but he goes through a great deal of adventure, involving extortion, kidnapping, false kidnapping, car chases, and a musical number to get it replaced. Why?

It really brought the room together. It was his. It was a valued rug as Walter said. The object itself doesn’t have any emotional attachment — his possession of it does. He goes through all of this because the rug was his.

That’s why it’s always Your Princess, Your Girlfriend, Your President (or his daughter.) That’s why You are the only one who can save her. There’s a possessive-ness of objects innate to young children (Mine!) and an innate protective-ness of women to the male gender. That’s why they never kidnap a random woman — they have to take something of yours. Something you need or want to possess. As she said, in Patriarchy, damsels are the ball, and you have to have the ball to win.

In Dying Light, they state it clearly. “Now I’ve taken something of yours.”

Now, let’s talk about the word “foundational”. You stated that your definition was “influential and seed-like” and then later stated that your definition was:

“Foundational for video games” means that out of all major tropes in existence, only certain tropes bled through to the video games and dominated the early video game story-telling.

While this does seem like two different definitions of the same word, both seem odd, because you properly state what Anita meant by the term, which is that it set the standard for the industry.

Would you argue that something that set the standard for an industry is foundational to it? I’d be interested to know what you determine is the proper level of pervasiveness of a trope to be standard within an industry.

Finally, let’s talk about water and excreta. In your previous entry, you brought up Josh Whedon, and since you’ve already shown some expertise in his works, let’s keep my example there.

Suppose that Firefly had been cancelled after the very first episode. No movies, no comic books — the only medium being one singular episode of one singular TV show — what would be the characterization of River Tam? She’s functionally a damsel in distress — she’s in stasis, having been initially rescued by Simon Tam and later by Mal Reynolds by allowing them to flee the empire aboard his ship.

Now add in the rest of episodes, where she wakes up, shows likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and saves the crew on several occasions (most notably in the movie). She gains agency as the plot goes along — she experiences things, develops friendships and enemies and acts upon her environment and affects other characters.

The presence of the trope in the series doesn’t affect River’s characterization because she changes over time via personal development. She’s acted upon, but also acts upon others. It is this agency that is essential and breaks her from the trope characterization. However, if you intentionally limit the scope to the first episode, she becomes a trope.

As such, the presence of a sexist trope in a game doesn’t make the game inherently sexist, because the scope may be limited both in time — the character may change and grow, or character limited — a singular character may be a trope, but other characters may be well-defined. Going back to Firefly, while River may be a trope in the first episode, Zoe, Inara and Kaylee are not.

However, while Anita does denote that, she limits her examples to games where the character doesn't grow throughout the duration of the game. She mentions Peach, and even mentions Super Princess Peach and Super Mario Brothers 2, games where Peach was a protagonist, but explicitly limits her scope to other games. She mentions Zelda, and distinctly notes Zelda’s agency as Sheik in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. However Zelda is a Damsel in Distress in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and her scope is limited to the game.

She’s not employing a “motte and bailey” strategy — she’s simply denoting that some games may have a character progress from a trope beginning to a fully realized ending. She’s accepting the presence of character development.

As for your demand for proof, while I will agree that video game psychological analysis is in it’s infancy (and will change as games graphics, methods of interaction, and sensory feedback get closer to the “uncanny valley”), here is some analysis from other media fields:

There’s actually a fair amount of this type of research, but most of it is behind paywalls, so linking wouldn't be helpful. These are static visual and audio mediums, and unless you believe that interactivity actually lessens the impact and response, they should be applicable. If you do believe that, I’d like to hear your rationale.

Have a good day. ☺