Context Matters: On Feminist Frequency, Joss Whedon and Cherry-Picking
Adrian Chmielarz

Hi Adrian,

Just wanted to say I love your work on The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

However, you seem to be missing the context that you’re accusing Anita of missing.

The first and oddest obvious way is that you compare fantasy characters to real-life people, in that you assume that a human female that is rescued by a male hero is the same as a female game damsel who is rescued by a male hero.

The biggest flaw is that you've neglected the entirety of the rest of the human person’s life. Humans are innately well-rounded characters — they have hopes, dreams, aspirations, flaws, goals, successes and failures. When that human female is rescued by a male hero, she goes on and lives the rest of her life, having effect and agency on the world around here. She had that agency before she was rescued as well. She could have a myriad of traits. She might be flawed — she might be terrible, but she’s still something.

When Princess Peach gets rescued, the game is over, and she’ll immediately get kidnapped at the beginning of the next game, while wearing the same outfit, and probably making a cake. Unlike the human female, she has nothing else — she’s there to get captured, to provide motivation to Mario, and when she’s rescued, there’s a short denouement where she provides some sort of thanks for Mario’s effort, and that’s it. Her context is only in her relationship to Mario and Bowser (or another villain). Even when we do see her in captivity (in Paper Mario), it’s a creepy affair about a perverted robot and less about her. She could easily be replaced with a magic sword, a golden snitch, or any other McGuffin. It doesn’t matter, because she doesn’t really exist between kidnappings.

The ironic thing is that when she’s actually allowed to go out on her own (in Super Princess Peach and Super Mario Bros 2), she’s arguably the best the character of the bunch. She actually saves Mario in Super Princess Peach (one of the very few examples of a female saving a male), and in Super Mario Bros 2, she’s arguably the best character with her hover ability.

The other major issue you seem to ignore is that this is video games. It’s a created medium, not life. People seem to love to utilize this argument when defending the effect it has on players (It’s just harmless fantasy), but never really acknowledge the other half — we’re not bound to any rules here. The genetic and physical limitations that define human sexes aren’t required in the video game world. We could easily make a game with all female soldiers, or all female cops, or anything else. There’s no reason we can’t strive for gender equity. The tropeyness is because we derive these stories from older stories, and those older stories from even older stories or ministel songs or plays, back when there was an incredible dominant patriarchy and the options for women were incredibly limited by society. Society has gotten considerably better (not equity, but certainly closer) and we could easily push video games into something more inline with a desired utopia.

Now there are some games that are based on real life — for example, certain War games, and Sports Games always have some grounding in reality (except for odd bits like Blood Bowl). Nobody would expect gender equity in these. Games that recreate real life situations where a person is rescued wouldn’t qualify either.

It’s also incredibly short-sighted to assume that all violence against women is inherently sexist. While you can make your Joss Whedon argument, I can counteract that argument by presenting that these characters are well-rounded, and could easily write a paper about how River Tam or Buffy are fully realized heroines with agency.

You could also present a counter-argument about Anita’s examples actually are fully realized and have agency, but Anita chooses her examples for the most part carefully. You missed the fact that a damsel in distress isn't just a female character who is victimized for the benefit of male character motivation — it’s a character who’s purpose is to be victimized for the benefit of male character motivation.

Here’s Anita’s definition, for your records:

Also, while tropes are definitely useful, continuous propagation of the same tropes can be harmful. Many tropes have become outdated or not used anymore because they’re harmful and not culturally significant anymore. This is why you don’t see “Mammie” or “Happy Negro” characters anymore. Not all tropes are worthy of preservation.

I’m interested in your future work, but I’d like to see more context in your analysis as well.

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