Damsels in Distress Pt. 3
In the previous parts of this Medium series on the Feminist Frequency series, we looked at the largest body of work of Jonathan McIntosh and Anita Sarkeesian in their videos on Damsels in Distress. We looked at some of the concepts they presented, discussed the nuanced nature of the concepts, and even discussed the very nature of nature and being.
In it, we addressed the minutiae in some of their arguments that go entirely without discussion in an attempt to discuss broad strokes. This piece will continue with the examination of the Damsels cliche. Keep in mind that the previous points also apply here regardless of the reader’s agreement. They are points I’m putting forth. The tropes referenced are not actually tropes. They are cliches. There’s no indication that video game characters have self-efficacy, self-determination, or the right to decide for themselves.
This Medium will be longer than the others. We will finish looking at the Damsels trope (I will use this word as it is the one used in the video) and then transition into looking at the Ms. Male trope.
Following this breakdown, we will recap points lodged in the four parts of these series and then wrap all of it up in a neat package of sorts.
As with the other pieces, this should not be construed as a personal attack against McIntosh or Sarkeesian. It is an attempt to showcase some of the shortcomings of their work as intellectually and academically dishonest. This does not mean that they are liars or any other personal insult.
Additionally, this series is meant to be my criticism of their work. It is not meant to be an exhaustive look at the research on a topic. It is not meant to have every link to every study possible. It is not meant to refute every point McIntosh and Sarkeesian make as some points are valid, some are acceptable, and some are invalid. It’s meant to highlight what I feel are problems in their arguments.
This is meant simply to be criticism of critics. Nothing more.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian wrap up their Damsels series in their third part. Sources include four websites on “ironic sexism.” One is a book concerning the belief that women’s rights progress means sexist cliches are now acceptable. Another blog at Bitch Media, ironically titled using a term often called sexist, discusses “hipster sexism” as a movement which makes -isms acceptable as long as they’re done with a mind to irony, mockery, reclamation, and satire (such as using the term bitch casually), a video concerning advertising by McIntosh and Sarkeesian themselves, and a blog by former Jezebel writer Lindy West.
The pair also source ROM hacks which alter the code without permission of developers or owners of the property rights. Nintendo, the owner of all of the above, consider ROMs illegal and derived works illegal and they want to go after them.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian also link to Fat Princess stories.
The following claims were asserted without any citations that are needed: pervasiveness of the Damsel trope, video games are pernicious, games with female protagonists are few and far between, the difference between protagonist and character, how emotions are bad, how PMS is bad, “girl power” started with Buffy in the late 1990s, 4% of modern titles are exclusively designed for women in the leading role, gendered traditions in storytelling, regressive notions, helpless males do not perpetrate negative ideals of men, pre-existing stereotypes, ROM hacks are acceptable, Damsel is more popular than ever, Damsel games are part of a long tradition, jokes have cultural significance, dismissing gender issues is a time-honored tradition, function of humor, sexist satire and satire of sexism, focusing on male characters is bad, subversions of tropes, altruism is a problem if it’s aimed at a gender, the Damsel is uniquely traditional, regressive, or patronizing universally; gender paradigms.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian report that they have referenced 192 games throughout the entire Damsel trope series. In the referenced time frames (the 1970s to 2013), the following amount of games were released per major console for the major, currently existing console creators (Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony). Keep in mind this excludes any console outside of the “Big 3":
- Nintendo Entertainment System — 822 games released; 1985 — 1995.
- Super Nintendo Entertainment system — 784 games — 1991 — 1999.
- Nintendo 64 — 387 games, 1996–2003.
- Nintendo GameCube — 648 games, 2001–2007.
- Nintendo Wii — 1,222 games, 2006-current
- Nintendo Wii U — 455 games, 1012-current
- Microsoft XBOX — 999 games, 2001–2008
- Microsoft XBOX 360 — 1,125 games, 2005-current
- Microsoft XBOX ONE — 294 games, 2012-current
- Sony PlayStation 1 — 7,918, 1994–2006
- Sony PlayStation 2 — 3,870 games, 2000–2013
- Sony PlayStation 3 — 796 games, 2006-current
- Sony PlayStation 4 — 129 games, 2013-current
The total amount of games on just these systems, not including any other system such as PC gaming, Sega, and others is:
NOTE: This number is only a cursory swipe of the page for units that exist on the consoles. This means that multiplatform games will be caught in this number. However, I also purposefully excluded earlier consoles. This means that this number should not be taken as sacrosanct. It is simply an example of just how large the gaming world is. In actuality, there’s likely over 20,000 games easily. If I had to hazard a guess, there’s probably around 25,000 to 30,000 on Wikipedia alone. Wikipedia should also not be taken as sacrosanct. It has its own flaws. So this number should be taken with caution. Thank you Adrian Chmielarz for the criticism here!
By the end of the Damsels series, McIntosh and Sarkeesian declared that the Damsels trope was a systemic problem widespread in gaming by analyzing only 1% of games released in the time frame referenced.
In our previous two episodes on this topic we’ve discussed how the Damsel in Distress trope has been, and continues to be, one of most pervasive representations of women in gaming, showing up in hundreds of titles from old school classics to more modern day blockbusters.
They examined 1% of games in a poorly defined time frame, said they looked at 200+ (“hundreds”) when looking at only 197, and then declared pervasiveness based upon 1% of games. This qualifies as intellectual dishonesty as they willfully know they are misrepresenting their research and academic dishonesty as they are massaging their data to receive an outcome they concluded before finishing or conducting their research.
On any level, the analysis that McIntosh and Sarkeesian conduct is simply dishonest.
This includes looking at the Super Princess Peach advertisement to pass judgement on the sexual nature of the full game. Such an examination is, as it should go without saying, completely invalid. Advertisements are rarely encapsulating of gameplay.
Peach: Borderline PMS Female
That’s right, Peach’s powers are her out-of-control frantic female emotions.
This is incorrect. Peach’s abilities in the game include jumping and swinging her parasol to destroy Goombas. Her powers are never out of the control of the player who, according to McIntosh and Sarkeesian, is the subject of the game. The characters therein are objects. Peach’s emotionsare very much in the control of the player as the player can use her powers of joy to fly, gloom to water the ground with a waterfall of tears, rage to turn her invincible, and calm to recharge her life.
When using the power of happiness, for example, Peach flies in the air saying, “Whee,” twirling, and gathering items. When crying, the deluge of tears is so fantastic as to come directly from a cartoon. When enraged, Peach catches fire and somehow becomes immortal in the process. While one could argue that they’re extreme representations of female emotionality, the argument can also be made that it’s just Peach being in touch with her emotions to utilize them in fantastic ways.
It’s also worth noting that none of the powers co-exist as they often do in expressions of premenstrual dysphoric disorder or borderline personality disorder. As a clinician, I can say that I have treated clients with both disorders. PMDD often has features of depression, anxiety, and anger along with fatigue and uncontrollable emotionality. Borderline personality disorder can present with someone being simultaneously angry, sad, and tired in the same 5 minute span. Unlike Peach’s controlled representation, these representations of emotions are uncontrollable and very exhausting to the person experiencing the disorder.
Academic research on this shows that women experience affect more intensely, are more open to emotions, experience more anxiety and sadness as well as positive emotions and warmth. There’s even research to show this existing in the neurological as men have less increase in activity in the prefrontal area associated with appraisal, greater decreases in their amygdala associated with emotional responding, and less engagement in the ventral striatal regions associated with reward processing. In short, men may expend less effort on regulating emotions with thoughts and women may use more positive emotions when addressing negative emotions.
Young girls are shown to display more positive (happiness) and internalizing emotions (depression, sympathy) more than boys who show more externalizing emotions (anger). As age increased, the differences increased.
There simply is a difference in how men and women experience and express emotions both neurologically and culturally. One study which looked at cultural differences found that women around the world reported experiencing sadness and fear while men experience anger more readily. Women are also more adept at emotional identifications.
And while women do not report emotions more frequently than men, they do experience emotions in different individual frequency. Men report positive emotions such as calmness, excitement, and anger more frequently while women report sadness, anger, and contentment. The only major significance is men reported more happiness.
The conclusion here? Emotions exist for men and women. They are not bad things. Being in touch with your emotions is not a bad thing. Controlling your emotions is not a bad thing. What is bad is when your emotions are out of control, you cannot control your emotions, or someone makes you feel ashamed for having them as if they’re some sign of an oppressive system. Feelings are natural, and harnessing them for great feats is, in my opinion, uniquely human.
So while it’s definitely nice to see Peach starring in her own adventure, the Dude in Distress role-reversal premise here feels like it’s just intended as a lighthearted joke or niche market novelty.
That would probably be because it was meant to be lighthearted. Super Mario Brothers is not a series that is about serious issues. You are traveling across the land, stomping on turtles, saving mushrooms, and occasionally spitting fireballs or collecting coins from boxes. If it did not feel like a lighthearted joke then the game would not have been a Mario game. After all, Nintendo has become synonymous with lighthearted fun by their own design.
The Genesis of Girl Power
It’s probably not a coincidence that the majority of these titles were produced and released during the run of the popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) which lead the “girl power” trend in mass media entertainment that briefly took hold in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian are incorrect about the origins of the girl power movement in modern media. The progenitors of the girl power movement were none other than Bikini Kill. The band, comprised of Kathleen Hanna, Billy Karren, Kathi Wilcox, and Tobi Vail, formed in 1990. They launched what came to be known as “riot grrrl” while the grunge movement in music gained traction as the 1980s turned over to the 1990s. Rock music was shifting away from hair bands of the 80s and into a more, well, grunge sound.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer the movie, which is generally reviled by Joss Whedon was released in 1992. Xena: Warrior Princess, a TV show generally identified as an iconic feminist and lesbian show, was not aired until 1995.
Shows that started in 1990 include Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Bobby’s World, Kid ‘n Play, The Family Man, Law & Order, Captain Planet, and Beverly Hills 90210.
Shows that ended in 1990 include Mama’s Family, Baywatch (to return in 1991), Sister Kate, and The Tracey Ullman Show. Also, “It” aired.
Not exactly a banner year for girl power in television media as quoted in the Wikipedia article McIntosh and Sarkeesian may have read, “After the Sarah Connors and Ellen Ripleys of the 1980s, the 1990s weren’t so kind to the superwoman format — Xena Warrior Princess excepted.”
Why McIntosh and Sarkeesian overlooked Bikini Kill and Xena for Buffy and Spice World is unknown. Especially when Buffy the Vampire Slayer did not debut until 1997 — seven years after riot grrrl and 5 years after Xena. Girl power as a television phenomenon lagged behind the movement in music and other forms of entertainment for quite a while.
This may seem like a minor issue, but I believe it needs to be discussed. The nature of girl power is not as represented by McIntosh and Sarkeesian correctly. It started sooner with different sources.
Power and Empowerment
McIntosh and Sarkeesian spend quite a bit of time discussing power and the need of empowerment. As I discussed earlier, the necessity of being empowered for video game characters is somewhat fallacious. Video game characters, due to being defined by the parameters of creators, are only as empowered as written. They cannot have an innate realization of empowerment on their own. They require, as a result, an imbuement of empowerment from others.
However, the two never delve into the notion of power and empowerment. Instead, it is expected that the reader notes that power is innately tied to gender as men have it, women do not. Power, however, is not so easily categorized or defined. This section will discuss power in a framework.
French and Raven identify that power comes in multiple types: reward power, coercive power, legitimate power, referent power, and expert power.
In discussing power, French and Raven deduce multiple pseudo-mathematics logical representations. P is the person that is affected by the power. O is the social agent that is another person, norm, group, or group participant. The pair go into a long, convoluted explanation of social influence. In short, social agents can direct social influence in the person. Control or direction can be positive (intended change) or negative (unintended change).
Power is not innately good or bad. It is both. It can effect change or influence either intended or unintended. The strength of that power is merely defined in the maximum ability of agents to influence the person.
Reward power is merely power that is used to reward based upon the person or agent’s desire to be rewarded and lessen a need or drive. The more a person is rewarded, the more that person will be attracted to the agent. An example of this may be a boss who gives a raise. The boss has reward power.
Coercive power is the power that involves the agent’s ability to manipulate desire or attraction. The concept here is that the person will be somehow punished by the agent if the person does not conform. An example of this may be a spanking for not following rules. You can also withhold a reward. The parent has coercive power.
Legitimate power is consistent of structures, norms, and psychological domains. A parent expects a child goes to school which is reinforced by laws and a feeling that the child should go to school. Another example may be a religion. A child is expected to adhere to a parent’s faith and the norms of society reinforce that. Another way of thinking of it is that this power is the internalized value/norms of the person that dictate the agent has influence on the expected behaviors of the person.
Referent power is based upon the extent to which the person identifies with the agent and feels one with the agent. An example of this may be desire to belong to a club or group. The club or group has power over the behaviors of the person as they want to join the club. However, if one is afraid of ridicule or withholding of membership, that would be coercive. This deals with innate desire of the person to belong to the group independent of the group’s behavior.
Expert power is the extent of knowledge that the agent as identified by the person. A lawyer’s advice, a therapist’s work, a teacher’s lesson plan. All of these put the person in an expert position of power.
So how can these powers change? If your boss offers you a raise, you might be expected to work longer (unintended) but also get more money (intended) then we’re looking at reward power.
If you’re given a raise under the condition you work more (intended) but you may lose your receptionist (unintended) and possibly be looking at coercive power as the intent was to downsize.
If your boss is Black and you are White, you are technically low in many forms of power within one strata of social communication (the company culture), but you may hold other power in other strata (college graduation rates conferring expert power by and large to Caucasians).
Another example here is college degrees. Women are earning a majority of degrees in nearly every field. Men earn most degrees in the #5 field of engineering, #11 field of computer science, and nearly all of the bottom 15 degrees including mathematics, parks and recreation science, agriculture, theology, philosophy, military technology, and transportation.
Women earned 58% of all degrees conferred in 2012–2013. This confers onto women expert power, referent power, and could extend into other areas of power by virtue of women ascending to higher positions as being identified more and more as better leaders. Women are gaining, under this framework, more power and are surpassing men in power.
Power, under this explanation, is not universally good or bad. After all, the group may exercise a power through reference (demand your inclusion lest you be a negative label) and end up with an unintended consequence (lose funding because of bullying).
Power is dynamic and multi-tiered. It is not absolute. In fact, researchers have even conceptualized power in multiple ways included structural and potential based, as a process of influence, and as an outcome of influence. Some argue it’s all three. Some argue none at all and it’s just exchange. As this is the case, the summation of power relationships by McIntosh and Sarkeesian as simplistically drawn upon gender lines is specious. It sounds quite intelligent, but it glosses over the important nuances of the nature of power.
Power is not as simple as agency which is pretty complex in itself. Power has multiple theories, and no single theory has been evidenced to be more true than the other. By extension, powerlessness also has many definitions and models.
If power and powerlessness is loosely defined so too is empowerment. After all, how can one give power if they do not know how power is defined? How can one define a concept in absolute when the concept changes based on the need of those speaking of it? These are deep seated questions asked by cultural linguistics and such thinkers as Noam Chomsky and other linguists and philosophers.
The simple answer is that empowerment is not something you give. It is not something that can be passed along as one would pass a baton. Empowerment must come from within a population or community. There must be, as social workers call it, buy-in or acceptance of the scheme. In a community where buy-in is high, individual empowerment may be high as the relationship between empowerment and environment is correlated. However, this does not mean that empowerment comes from the environment.
As video game characters have no environment outside of their parameters, it becomes difficult to state video game characters need empowerment. Especially when empowerment, as we have seen, needs to be fostered and grown from within. It cannot be given. Bestowing power onto a person or group does not encourage self-sustaining empowerment. It merely bequeaths them power that has been dictated by the giver as necessary power. This question is asked by social workers: If you give someone empowerment, is it their empowerment or yours?
Who are we to decide what power another person or community necessarily needs? Simply put, self-efficacy must be present for empowerment to ever work. Without proper fostering of one’s own desire to effects, empowerment simply does not take root.
Video game characters do not have innate desires or wants. They are defined purely by the developer as creator.
A true subversion of the trope would need to star the damsel as the main playable character. It would have to be her story. Sadly, there are very few games that really explore this idea.
It is important to note that Super Princess Peach is a game that fits this definition. She is the main playable character of her game. It tells her story. This should, according to McIntosh and Sarkeesian, subvert the Damsel trope. However, it does not according to the pair. McIntosh and Sarkeesian dismiss this game as:
So while it’s definitely nice to see Peach starring in her own adventure, the Dude in Distress role-reversal premise here feels like it’s just intended as a lighthearted joke or niche market novelty.
It would appear that the criteria for trope subversion is also judged by the sensibilities of subjective opinion of the game. Trope subversions, for McIntosh and Sarkeesian, are not trope subversion if the subversion is tongue-in-cheek or lighthearted. The female character can have every other met criteria, but additional criteria for subversion can be tacked on.
But how could people know a trope is going to happen? Well tropes live in the minds of the audience. As such, sufficiently Genre Savvy(or Trope Savvy) audience members can predict a familiar trope coming based on the hints dropped by the writer. So when the writer decides to build on this expectation, only to reveal that the expected “trope” was a Red Herring while an entirely different situation results, you have a Subverted Trope.
In discussing trope subversion, McIntosh and Sarkeesian never quite tells us what trope subversion is. TVTropes states that trope subversion is not undercutting a particular trope by abandoning the trope. In fact, subversion comes in the form of utilizing the expectation of the trope to twist the consumer into an unmet expectation. However, TVTropes also states the following very clearly:
Bear in mind that, just as Tropes Are Not Bad, subversions are not automatically good, witty, clever, or original; conversely, don’t hesitate to add a subversion (that’s actually there) just because you think the work is inane and stupid.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian make it quite clear that their trope subversion is innately good. It empowers the character and, based on the hastily accepted and poorly explored cultivation effect, the player as subjects derive some sense of behavior, esteem, or being from the game. Nevermind that research is currently scant on this, correlation co-efficients are low, and effect sizes are often quite small. It has been stated as true.
However, truth, as covered in another piece both on the Tropes series and independently of it, is not so simple. McIntosh and Sarkeesian build their argument exclusively on the acceptability and generalizability of the cultivation effect to explain any fraction of human behavior.
It’s neither fact nor generalizable. It is simply one way of explaining a potential phenomenon.
As we move on from the Damsel trope, we will not be repeating arguments. It goes without saying that many of the previous arguments apply here with Ms. Male. There’s no solid research evidence that tropes are harmful, that video games lead to sexism, that sexism is even present ore systemically prevalent in gaming, or that video games are pernicious. These are all opinions stated as fact and asserted as a mixture of post hoc ergo propter hoc and cum hoc ergo propter hoc.
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, a logical fallacy, dictates that an effect in sequence to a cause means the cause resulted due to the effect. As a result, removal of the cause will de facto undo the effect. Sexism in men and against women happened as a result of media effects that happened as men grew up therefore media causes sexist attitudes that we must change through deconstruction and, ultimately, change. These two events are observed as happening together, but the causal link remains completely unfounded. In philosophical proof: A happened then B happened therefore A caused B and stopping A will mitigate or stop B.
Cum hoc, ergo propter hoc states that two events happening at the same time in causality must be linked. Sexism by men and against women happen with each other therefore sexism by men and against women causes oppression to women. Again, causality can be either implied or stated outright. In research, especially qualitative research, this is a massive problem. Interviewing one person does not explain the whole culture. Ethnographers are always mindful of this fact that they are not showing causation in any fashion. In philisophical proof: A and B occur co-occuring therefore A caused B and removing A will cause B to stop.
None of these claims, which are the core of McIntosh and Sarkeesian’s arguments, are validated fully by research. The effects of television on body image and sexism has been a solid research area since the proliferation of the tube in the 1950s and the research never has been causal in nature. The research is still very inconclusive and the theories are quite wide. The effects of video games on violent behaviors and aggression has been researched since the 1970s and the outcomes are still debated today. Research into sexism in video games exclusively is comparatively novel and the body of research is so tiny that less than 20 articles exist on this subject.
Though McIntosh and Sarkeesian continue to misuse the term “trope,” I will use it in the same manner they used it. Do note that they should be calling tropes “cliches” for correctness.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian define the Ms. Male as, “The female version of an already established or default male character. Ms. Male Characters are defined primarily by their relationship to their male counterparts via visual properties, narrative connection or occasionally through promotional materials.” It is important to note that McIntosh and Sarkeesian are purposefully increasing the scope of the materials here to include advertisements as they continue to do for the rest of the series.
They also reference a handful of resource. None of them concern any background information on the Ms. Male trope. Three of the sources look at Ms. Pac-Man, three sources look at Smurfette (one of which is McIntosh/Sarkeesian themselves), one looks at gender in video games and states without any support that gender depictions cause hostility in gaming, one is a TV segment, one is Mega Man, and the last is a poster.
The claims they do not source that need to be sourced include the following:
Ms. Male as a trope, Japanese culture in 1980 had American feminism and was progressive, commercials in the 1980s adhere to cultural values in 2013–2014, Ms. Male has a long tradition in storytelling, gender markers are bad, feminizing gender signifiers, gender signifiers are stereotypical, feminized characters are sexist, Where’s My Water is popular, signifiers are abstract, Giant Boulder of Death was serious, blue/pink have been gendered, designers knew the Ms. Male trope, designers chose to use the Ms. Male trope, tropes are universal and not cultural, gender binary, society put males and females into opposition, the continuum of gender representations, men are “unmarked” by gender representations, female markers on male characters are jokes, male markers don’t hold the same significance, Smurfette is related to Ms. Male, Pollitt’s claims are factual, video game characters deserve self-determination, Angry Birds characters have personalities, male is the default, female variants are better gaming experiences, Ms. Male and Smurfette have been normalized in gaming.
It may seem trivial to note these things, and some may not be considered as important or as necessarily sourcable, but they are cause for concern for materials that are broadcast as educational in nature.
The Variable Nature of Ms. Male
Ms. Male does not exist as a trope outside of McIntosh and Sarkeesian’s work. They defined the trope for the purpose of their work. TVTropes has a trope called Distaff Counterpart. Examples of this notion on TVTropes for video games include Bayonetta, Kerrigan, Lightning, and Big Sister. The concept here is that the female is merely a “spin” on a male character by giving the character female traits. Bayonetta a spin on Dante from Devil May Cry, Kerrigan being a spin on Arthas from Warcraft (it is important to note that Kerrigan first appeared in 1998 before Arthas in 2002. Thanks for the note @ZhanriSC on twitter), Lightning being a spin on Cloud, and Big Sister being a spin on Big Brother.
The concept here is that the males owned the traits before the females. Superman had the power before Supergirl or Wonderwoman. Therefore, the power and ability of the female is inherently lesser than the male who had the trait originally.
In short, if any character that is female ever looks like or is inspired by a male character, TVTropes lists it as a Distaff Counterpart. Even if the characters are vastly different (Cloud and Lightning) or from completely different games and genres (Kerrigan and Arthas), they are alike therefore they are part of this trope. This is where the problems of trope identification shine bright—they depend entirely on the identifier for legitimacy.
This makes the application of this trope created by McIntosh and Sarkeesian to be incredibly variable and wholly dependent upon their individualized definitions. In fact, the definition of a Ms. Male character shifts during the video. It starts out as a female character that is a gender-identified clone of a male character such as Ms. Pacman. It then becomes a character created in a game that doesn’t have enough females such as Gauntlet through evoking the Smurfette “principle” that only one woman can exist in a given game. This principle, by the way, is another word for tokenism and has a stroke root in sociological schools and was cited by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait.
The Smurfette principle was named in the above linked 1991 article by Katha Pollitt. No source was given to previous literature on tokenism. No conversation was had in the 1991 article on tokenism. However, Pollitt had no problem reusing the concept without attribution; neither did McIntosh or Sarkeesian.
Same concept, new name, and a whole bunch of attention in the process for women who pretend they created a concept long standing.
The trope even morphs into characters that are females but do not receive enough attention, press, or coverage as partially the complaint with FemShep from Mass Effect. Because of this moving target of Ms. Male’s definition, it is incredibly difficult to measure this trope outside of McIntosh and Sarkeesian’s experience. This makes the replication of the data impossible.
Gender Representations in History
McIntosh and Sarkeesian present many gender markers in the Ms. Male video — pink, bows, high heels, lipstick, and other markers. The implication of this discussion is that these markers are transcultural. After all, Ms. Pac-Man, a character from Japan, had these markers which are used to denote feminity in western culture.
Queen Schuh-ad of Ur, circa 3,500 BC, used lipstick and both men and women followed soon after her bold use of red rocks to color her lips. The ancient Roman women were said to have worn lipstick to engage in fellatio, a celebrated action at the time. The lipstick, it is said, assisted with the ability to fellate. At the time, lipstick was not a sign of oppression. It was a sign of sexuality, of fertility, and of desire. This is so much the case that Vestal Virgins refused cosmetics and wanted to appear innocent and free of cosmetic manipulations.
This is where we get the association today that the lips, painted red, were to resemble an engorged vagina as the lips were a sexual orifice. One would want to make them attractive and, at the same time, assist in making sure the use of that oriface was pleasurable to the receiver. Men, by the way, also wore cosmetics in the ancient world and the modern world as the founding fathers of America wore rouge and powdered wigs to accentuate innocence and stateliness. Pale skin, red lips, and light hair were but machinations of cosmetics to appeal to aesthetic standards of the day.
Women in World War II even used lipstick to define themselves as different from the “less-beautiful” totalitarian regimes where Americans assumed beauty was impossible. After all, anyone who has seen propaganda from the time knows that the Japanese were “rats.” However, this was not the case as the Japanese used makeup both with female geisha and male-dominated kabuki theater. Makeup, like lipstick, transcended gender and cultures that go well beyond the sociocultural conventions of dogmatic westerners who assert makeup and cosmetics as uniquely feminine. Ignoring thousands of years of history and downplaying modern trends this may be the case if the world means, “American men who lived in the last 100–200 years.” Unfortunately, anatomical humanity has existed for almost 200,000 years and we have evidence of makeup being used over 5,000 years ago and men have been wearing makeup without any social ridicule as late as the 1800s.
And cosmetics for men are, for some, coming back once again.
High heels themselves morphed over time and cultures. Persian military wore high heels for horseback riding. King Louis XIV also wore high heels. Heels were associated not with gender; they were associated in the past with social status. The size of the heel, men wearing thicker heels, did vary based on gender for some time. Some argue that it was because heels became associated with women, but Napoleon banned heels followed by a resurgence that lasted well into the 1900s. After all, the Beatles wore heels in the 1960s and were very popular.
While it is true that heels for women tend to be higher and more narrow, men still wear heels to this day in the form of boots. However, both men and women wear heels of varying width and length. Well, kind of.
As for colors, it’s a well-known anecdote that gendered colors are incredibly modern. In many anecdotes and some research, pink was supported as a strong, masculine color in 1918. And while women show no preference for pink independent of social pressure, men show a sheer avoidance of the color. There is some research that calls this into question, but the methods are also questionable. It would appear, however, that the only gendering of color is that both men and women show no real preference for pink.
In fact, research into color shows that both men and women preferred blue, but that men had a much more restricted preference palette — 57% preferred blue. And when it comes to buying things? Seems gray, blue, black, and red are very popular. Pink falls short for men and women who both appear to prefer blue, green, red, black, and purple in other research.
If women and men prefer blue, how did pink become associated with women while blue became associated with men? Well, it took a long time and is a very recent phenomenon according to one author. It was not until the 1940s, a single lifetime ago, that this association came into public thought. Within the same lifetime, this gendering of colors was completely dismantled. Yet, McIntosh and Sarkeesian have no problem decrying pink as universally a feminine color.
Further to his point is the problem of culture. Let us use the example of colors. McIntosh and Sarkeesian declare that pink is a color of the feminine and blue is a color of the masculine. Ignoring the historical ignorance of this statement, there is a profundity of ignorance when it comes to cultural differences.
In America, one may have a black eye. However, they may have a blue eye in Germany and a purple one in Spain. In America, one stops at a yellow light but in Britain they may be stopping at an amber light while in France the light is orange.
Going to America and want to appear excited and passionate? Don that red and take a night on the town. Then cross into Mexico where you could be seen as macabre and full of death. Then pop on over to Puerto Rico where your red means nature and animality. Let’s then take a trip to Brazil where you’ll be visible in a place where red cars are perceived to cause more accidents!
Want to wear blue? In America, you’ll be trustworthy and soothing. In Mexico, you’re trustworthing and in mourning. The Bahamas see the blue as a representation of the water at sea while Argentinians may associate it with the sky and freedom. Europe could see you as serene and reliable while Great Britain could perceive you as dignified, rich, and full of decorum. In the Nordic area, one may be perceived as being poor and in need. Italians may see blue as judgmental and pure while Indonesians may see you as sad and forlorn.
Wearing pink on your day out? You’re feminine and sweet in America, but associated with a building in the Caribbean. Europeans may see you as delicate and soothing while Turks associate you with flamingos. Take a jaunt to Japan and pink will land you an association with spring, youth, and good health. Going to India? It’s happiness and hope.
Colors do not have a standard, universal meaning. Femininity or masculinity are not universal. Confucian ideals migrated to Japan and demanded gender expectations of men and women. Men were to be loyal to lords and women were to be loyal to their husbands and family. Women controlled the house, economic rewards, and home while men were expected to be learned, intelligent, and artistic. This shifted in World War II when men were demanded into service under loyalty and women were to have children for the war effort. These roles again shifted in Japan after World War II where feudalism ended and gender roles faded for a group identity.
Comparing this to American demands of individuality, “macho men” are celebrated. Strength, honor, and action encapsulate the requirements on American men who are to proactive, brave, emotionally and physically tough. They are ambitious and full of competitiveness. American men do not require intelligence and art. They merely need to act, be ready to act, and act decisively. In comparison to Japan, women before World War II were to be caretakers of the home and encourage faith and morality. They often managed finances, but not as overtly as Japanese women. World War II changed many roles as women became more independent, entered the workplace, entered solidly into the political sphere, and became crucial to decision-making processes in the home and workplace.
In Africa, Masai boys have a difficult life of herding cattle and other livestock, experience ridicule and hazing from their family, and are constantly tested by their family for being a man. This is in attempt to harden the growing boys to meet their social demands of protecting, hunting, and fighting against threats. Women, on the other hand, are venerated as they are able to provide life. They have sexual freedom and stay to tend for the home and neighbors. Both men and women are circumcised as a rite of passage. Society for the Masai is so divided that it is vastly different from Western societies.
Of note is that the Masai practice male and female circumcision as a rite of passage into adulthood. There has been a world wide movement to end the circumcision for women typically from outside of the Masai culture.
Gender roles are not fixed. They are bound to culture and time and are socioculturally constructed. Gender roles are universal in that every culture known to us has some gender role, but the nature of the roles are not. Women can be empowered over men. They can have more choice, more freedom, and more empowerment than men.
They can be venerated higher than men. They can be more respected than men.
To state with absolute certainty that a plurality of cultures are male-dominated is, once again, tenuous. The reality is that there’s simply a metric assload of cultures. One attempt says there’s over 8,000 different cultures. However, cultures are not always distinct enough to classify as separate or same. Cultures also change over time and space as do boundaries and labels for land masses. Sometimes this process is organic and other times it is a response to a world event as with World War I.
Sometimes the people ask for the change or institute it with a vote of whatever quality as with Crimea. Other times, the culture of a people mirrors a protectorate so much that they wish to join it as with Puerto Rico.
Simply put: One cannot assert gender roles as they apply in America universally. Not when globalization means that Americans may be playing a video game made in Japan, Canada, or other countries.
One must, instead, learn to take into account more factors than simply what offends.
The Gender Binary and xShep
Quite curiously, McIntosh and Sarkeesian play into the gender binary heavily with Ms. Male. There are only two options: Male or female. Should a female take on concepts that are deemed masculine by the pair, they may classify as Ms. Male. Yet, this restricts female characters. They cannot, have traits that are deemed too close to masculine.
Both the Smurfette Principle and the Ms. Male Character trope create scenarios that reinforce a false dichotomy wherein male is associated with the norm while female is associated with a deviation from the norm.
What McIntosh and Sarkeesian miss in this is that it is their identification of this trope that sets male and female characters into a false dichotomy.
The female option is well designed and her overall narrative is also nearly indistinguishable from her male counterpart’s, aside from some of the romance options.
FemShep, as she is lovingly called by fans of Mass Effect, has been noted by Gamasutra itself as incredibly popular. One poll on the Mass Effect website shows that 22% play only male Shepard, 27% play only female Shepard, and 50% play either/or. It should be noted that this directly contradicts the statement by McIntosh and Sarkeesian in the video:
This marketing strategy contributes to the fact that only 18–20% of players choose the female option.
However, McIntosh and Sarkeesian completely wave off the popularity of FemShep as secondary to ManShep. The pair erroneously write:
His image is front and center on the box covers for all releases including the special editions. He is the one featured in the TV commercials, teasers, trailers, web banners, street posters and print ads and his face appears on most of the magazine covers. All of this positions the male Commander Shepard as the default protagonist of the series.
While this is the case for the three games, we have to look at the poll. In spite of this assertion, more people play exclusively the FemShep option than they do ManShep. Only 18% of players choose the default ManShep. That means 82% of players tweak their appearance in some manner after starting the game. Their 18% statistic actually speaks pretty well to choosing the default that’s on the box they decry as a problem.
This completely obliterates the argument that McIntosh and Sarkeesian are making. The box shows a man. The advertisements show a man. The banners, posters, ads, teasers, commercials, and trailers all show a man.
But players are selecting to play as a woman by their own free will regardless of the sociocultural transmission that male is the default.
Instead, McIntosh and Sarkeesian are stating, in the face of any evidence, that the transmission of male default by the creator is causing men to be seen as the default and women as optional by the player. This sets up a false dichotomy that men are required and women are merely accessories.
However, players show time and time again that gender options are not accessories. They are vital components of games to be considered. While in one poll players of World of Warcraft tend to play as their own gender due to the insertive nature of MMOs, the poll also showed something quite interesting. More men play a female character when playing the game than women play a male character. Men are more willing to play a female character than women are to play a male character. Reasons for this span getting free items, getting attention, getting less attention, or sexual attraction and others.
If male is the default, why is it that the default seems to be that men play men and women play women? If male is the default, why are men “crossing over” into playing women while women do it much less frequently? It would appear that male is not the default for the players. It may be the default for the creator, but the player can and will readily select their character’s gender based on preference instead of on wishes of developers.
For the record, you would expect, statistically, 25% of people to play ManShep, 25% to play FemShep, 25% to main ManShep but try FemShep, and 25% to main FemShep but try ManShep.
According to the Bioware poll, 22% play ManShep, 27% play FemShep, 25% man ManShep but try FemShep, 25% main FemShep but try ManShep. 1% abstain from voting. This means, in this poll, FemShep was more popular than one would expect. ManShep is much less popular than one would expect.
Additionally, ManShep is not simply named Shepard by many fans. A google search of ManShep returned 2,670 threads on the Bioware forum. FemShep has 23,700 threads. Shepard has over 100,000 and this includes male and female versions of the character. This includes the fan-made Wiki where Commander Shepard is both male and female.
It would appear that McIntosh and Sarkeesian themselves are setting up viewers to only think in a gender binary. Characters are male or they are female.
Indie games like the Knytt Underground, Scary Girl, Ittle Dew and the iOS title Lili, all have female characters who resist gendered stereotypes.
Knytt Underground received some criticism for pointless expletives and an often disjointed narrative that borders on trolling the player with crudeness. Scarygirl apparently had a plot of “little consequence” as the protagonist leaves her scary world of grey to adventure into the colorful yonder where the contrasting whimsy is the extent of the arcade platformer where loading screens tell the story.
Ittle Dew, for any who play it, should make one feel like they’re in a spoof Zelda with the female protagonist being voiced by a male. Somehow, being voiced by a man does not qualify Ittle Dew as Ms. Male. Lili stars a short-clad woman who shirks graduate school to study plants and pick flowers while leading a revolution against evil spirits.
Do these automatically show McIntosh and Sarkeesian are wrong? No. However, they have cited these games are great examples of breaking the trope in question in a really packed arena of characters from which to choose.
Of note at the publishing of the Ms. Male trope is that games with female protagonists included the recently released games of Remember Me (Nilin), Mirror’s Edge (Hope), Beyond: Two Souls (Jodie), Final Fantasy XIII (Lightning) and XIII-2 (Serah), and many other games. However, these were not included as examples of female protagonists who resist stereotypes as Nilin fights a corrupt system, Hope leaps across buildings, Jodie bridges two words, Lightning fights against predestination, and Serah fights for the future of her sister.
One must wonder about the reason these indie games were trumpeted from Sarkeesian and McIntosh’s platform over other, very popular representations of strong women in video games.
Ittle Dew has 1,000–5,000 installs on Google Play and a peak of 136 players on Steam. Lili appears to be somewhat more popular on the iTunes store. None of these games appear to even approach the sales of Remember Me.
If the intention is to provide games that defy the tropes, why are McIntosh and Sarkeesian restricting the positive games only to Indie games while showing no such selectivity in identification of negative examples in AAA games such as Mass Effect?
For reference, the Mass Effect series has sold 14.44 million games globally. Tomb Raider, centered entirely on a female protagonist, has sold 36.2 million. Final Fantasy, a series with female characters such as Lightning, Rydia, Edea, Rinoa, Garnet, Ashe, and many others has sold 106.67 million units globally. If video game characters are under the pall of sexism, would not one look at these popular games as well for analysis both positive and negative?
If the problem is uniquely American, why is the #1 game in all of American history Wii Sports with 41 million units followed by Super Mario Bros, Duck Hunt, Tetris, Wii Sports Resort, and Mario Kart Wii? One would be hard-pressed to label Wii Sports, Duck Hunt, Wii Sports Resort, and Mario Kart Wii sexist and representative of a systemic problem if you take the tact of looking at video games from a popularity perspective.
Both the Ms. Male Character and the Smurfette Principle have been normalized in gaming and in mass media more broadly. So much so that the two tropes usually pass under the radar and are often reproduced unconsciously — which is part of what makes the myths they perpetuate about women so powerful and insidious in our culture.
The Smurfette principle has not been normalized in gaming. It was normalized in television where the Smurfs and Smurfette originated. Prior to that, the principle, as discussed earlier, was discussed as tokenism since the 1960s. Unfortunately, some have decided that tokenism is just another name for the Smurfette principle which came into usage well after tokenism came into usage. The Smurfette principle is, in actuality, some feminists attempting to make tokenism a uniquely female experience.
The implications here, of course, is that inclusion of one woman is not enough. A video game developer must include at least two women lest they subconsciously (at best) and intentionally (at worst) harm women. When creators of the media add a second female to address this concern, TVTropes has this covered. This inclusion of the second female and every female thereafter is known as the Affirmative Action Girl.
Yes, there is a trope for having only 1 female character and a trope for having 2 or more female characters to counteract tokenism. You are, quite humorously, potentially sexist if you have no women, potentially sexist if you have 1 woman, and potentially sexist if you have multiple women.
Conclusion Part 4
This installment of the series includes quite a few points that are important to the discussion of the Tropes vs Women series. The chief among them is that McIntosh and Sarkeesian have announced, quite grandly, that the Damsel trope is a systemic problem by only looking at 1% of games when I generously restricted the amount of consoles to just Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony.
To declare a systemic problem by looking at less than 1% of all video games is a problem.
It is a problem that shines a methodological light into Tropes on an underlying weakness of the research. The research is not conducted on a random selection of games across the lifespan of video gaming. However, the conclusions are trumpeted as being generalizable to the entire video game population. Video games, McIntosh and Sarkeesian assert, have a sexism problem that is pervasive, systemic, and tied directly to misogynistic, sexist, and violent attitudes towards women.
Unfortunately for them, the apples in their hands did not fall from the cherry tree of video gaming. They have found their conclusion, but their conclusion is not derived from actual examination. Instead, their conclusion is found squarely in their dogged focus on finding the conclusion in their hands.
They started their research from the origin point that video games have a sexism problem. Are we do be shocked when, at the end of their Damsels series, they have found that video games have a sexism problem by looking at ONLY ~1% of video games?
Throughout the Damsels series, the pair made many specious claims about the nature of video games and video game characters. They should have agency, they have self-determination, they should be able to realize their own abilities. None of these are the case. Video game characters are not people. They are video game characters defined squarely by the parameters of developers.
Does this mean developers have a sexism problem, or does it mean that McIntosh and Sarkeesian have a sexism problem? I would argue the problem is not with those who create to push boundaries. The problem lies with the critic who holds the apples for which they have been searching in a zealous crusade.
Emotions are not sexist, but the perceptions of women as having unique emotions is sexist. Men and women are capable of all manner of emotional expression even if biology influences those emotional experiences and the expression of them.
Is video gaming perfect? Absolutely not. McIntosh and Sarkeesian have a point that we need more diversity in characters. However, they advocate for it by citing one-dimensional characters from mobile games while ignoring rich female characters they have decided are less important by some unknown metric.
Video game characters do not need to exercise power as we define it in the real world. They need, instead, to utilize power in unique ways in their world. Female characters must have the power and freedom to be sexy and sexual just as male characters need it. To vilify this in some mad dash to “patriarchy” does not increase or help diversity.
Identifying every single thing as a trope squashes diversity. By identifying all of these as negative in spite of the definition of those that create the very identifiers of the tropes, we restrict the narrative process. Women can no longer be sexy. They can no longer be strong. They can no longer be variants on men. They, instead, must be something else. The choice of the designer is restricted as a result, and the player misses out on potential female characters for restricted characters that, after repeat usage, become tropes themselves.
When we identify that having no women is a trope, one woman is a trope, and having more than one woman is a trope then we have a problem.
If video games are to be art, they must be open to criticism.
If criticism is to be worthwhile, however, it must predicated on more than a handful of pre-selected, discolored apples that are supposed to show that cherry pies cause schizophrenia because I am an academic and I said so.
Preamble: 8,549 words, ~200 links.
Damsels in Distress Part 1: 6,631 words, ~138 links.
Damsels in Distress Part 2: 7,054 words, ~113 links.
Damsels in Distress Part 3, Ms. Male: 9,176 words, ~162 links.