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

We are human therefore we are biased. Which is why people disliking Feminist Frequency’s work often refuse to see any value in it, and why defenders of it find one real or imagined error in the anti-FF critique and dismiss the entire thing wholesale.

Still, these potential errors are worth discussing. After publishing this piece yesterday I got a couple of interesting questions.

First of all, [about the Damsel in Distress trope being, as Feminist Frequency calls it, “foundational for video games”] I’m not sure why “foundational” implies “increases over time”, rather than “was there at the start”…

This is a very nice example of what looks like bias on both sides. I seem to have advanced “foundational” to “influential and seed-like”, and the defender treats it as mere “was there at the start” (“foundational” i.e. “forming the basis or groundwork of anything” sounds stronger to me than the modest “was there at the start”).

However, to clarify the fragment possibly awkward due to me not being a native speaker, my demand for the proof of “increases over time” was not because of the “foundational”, but because of this fragment of the Damsel in Distress Part 1 episode:

Even though Nintendo certainly didn’t invent the Damsel in Distress, the popularity of their “save the princess” formula essentially set the standard for the industry […] in order to sell more games to young straight boys and men.

And this is why I would like to see the graph that would both prove the influence of the trope and, more importantly, show us the current status of it in games. I do agree that early games used the trope in its (mostly) pure form, and it’s not surprising to me at all: these games usually had a very short intro…

President in Distress

…and needed something insta-impactful to provide an extra incentive for the players.

For what it’s worth, the use of this powerful trope in the early times makes me happy, as it shows the power of story-telling and how the six words of “your girlfriend was kidnapped, save her” own the abstract “go right and punch some dudes in the face” by turning moving sprites into objects we have an emotional reaction to.

Is it manipulative? Sure. Like basically all of fiction in history. Was the trope used to make more money? Sure, that is what happens when business offers something that people need or want.

By the way, note how the above quote is just one of many examples of contradictions in the Feminist Frequency work. On one hand, Damsel in Distress trope is used to “sell more games to young straight boys and men”, on the other, it “objectifies” women…

So the damsel trope typically makes men the “subject” of the narratives while relegating women to the “object”. This is a form of objectification because as objects, damsel’ed women are being acted upon […]

…and that disables the emotional engagement:

Since these women are just objects, there’s no need or reason for players to have any emotional engagement with them.

So which is it? Are Damsels in Distress objects and thus cannot cause any emotional reaction in the players, or is the Damsel in Distress trope powerful enough to get “young straight boys and men” to pay money for a game and play it to its (usually) happy ending?

Anyway, “foundational”. Strong statement, no proof.

Feminist Frequency tracks the potentially first instance of the use of the trope in video games to 1979’s Sheriff. There were at least 57 video games released that year. 1979 was not the first big year for video games (so the trope was not “foundational”, but rather just added to the mix), but let’s say it was still the beginnings and Sheriff was just a seed that introduced the trope to video games.

Does the trope catch on? We won’t know that from the Feminist Frequency video. They mention Donkey Kong next. That game in 1981 is 0.77% of games released that year (not a reliable source, so treat it more as a ballpark rather than the actual number). That does not look like growth to me (from Sheriff’s 1.75%), unless other games that year also used that trope. But there is no information about them in the video, no mention of these titles.

“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. Where is the proof that this is the case with Damsel in Distress? Where is the comparison to other powerful tropes that invaded video games story-telling?

I wouldn’t mind if 100% of early games used the trope. It would not matter much other than “man, they were really lazy back with the writing in those days”. But when you claim the trope was “foundational for video games”, how about a shadow of a proof?

[…] we’ve established that the Damsel in Distress trope is one of the most widely used gendered cliché in the history of video games and has been core to the popularization and development of gaming as a medium.

No, we have not established anything like that. No meaningful data whatsoever (no proof of infection and spread, no comparison to other powerful tropes, etc.). All we have seen is that in the first twenty five years a few hundred games (out of literally tens of thousands) used the trope in some form (from pure to barely recognizable). That is not the proof that the trope was “core” and “foundational”, only the proof that it was used. Again, I would not mind if the trope was, in fact, “core” and “foundational” — so what? — but I will not just take anyone’s word for it.

(Note there’s a separate Tumblr that Feminist Frequency set up to show the usage of trope, where examples are being added from time to time as new old games with the trope are identified. It’s a set of all incarnations of the trope, even significantly “impure”. We see the trope as the plot of a game, or a side quest, a sub-story, as simply the kidnapping of a woman, when the distress has nothing to do with the hero’s journey, when a damsel in not really a damsel, etc. Still, it’s an interesting board, and I only wish it had a little bit more meat in it — but I do understand that would be a gargantuan task.)

Second question I got was:

[…] you do realize that when she talks about a “sexist trope”, she’s talking about the aggregate effect, right?

Not true. But this is the often spotted defense of the Feminist Frequency work. The only one I have seen used more is the defense of:

As always, please keep in mind that it’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media while still finding other parts valuable or enjoyable.

Which in reality, if you read/watched the Tropes vs. Women episodes, translates to “It’s okay to like these things, as long as you know that you’re an evil violent misogynist.”

Anyway, indeed, McIntosh and Sarkeesian do often talk about the “aggregate effect”:

Just to be clear, I am not saying that all games using the damsel in distress as a plot device are automatically sexist or have no value. But it’s undeniable that popular culture is a powerful influence in or lives and the Damsel in Distress trope as a recurring trend does help to normalize extremely toxic, patronizing and paternalistic attitudes about women.

All is good then? No. This fragment exists because it’s both a motte and bailey strategy and something that the defenders of the Feminist Frequency’s work can point to and say “Hey, look, she’s not saying what she just said!”

Let’s take a look at some examples of McIntosh and Sarkeesian attaching value to the Damsel in Distress trope:

So the damsel trope typically makes men the “subject” of the narratives while relegating women to the “object”. This is a form of objectification because as objects, damsel’ed women are being acted upon […]

Objectification…

At its heart the damsel trope is not really about women at all, she simply becomes the central object of a competition between men (at least in the traditional incarnations). I’ve heard it said that “In the game of patriarchy women are not the opposing team, they are the ball.”

Patriarchy…

This brings us to one of the core reasons why the trope is so problematic and pernicious for women’s representations. The damsel in distress is not just a synonym for “weak”, instead it works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones.

Damaging to women…

Distilled down to its essence, the plot device works by trading the disempowerment of female characters FOR the empowerment of male characters.

Male vampirism…

It’s clear from the quotes above that according to Feminist Frequency the Damsel in Distress trope is rotten to the core. The point they are making is that:

a) The trope is evil and rotten (sexist or worse);
b) But a single instance of it won’t really have any effect on the real world
c) It’s the abundance of the trope that negatively affects the real world

In other words, they’re not saying that Damsel in Distress is like water: an okay thing but deadly if consumed in super-large doses. They’re saying it’s like excreta: a tiny bit of it sucks but will not kill you, anything more is lethal.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

Final part of the trilogy here.

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