Damsels in distress and the dearth of female characters

Today I watched Anita Sarkeesian’s threepart series on the Damsel in Distress trope in video games. This was part of her series on Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, which was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that became infamous for its backlash against Anita. Some male gamers were so offended by the thought that a woman might talk about sexism in gaming that they threatened to rape and murder Anita, posted her home address online, made a video game where you could “beat the bitch up”, reported her online accounts as spam, etc. In other words, they were so horrified by the thought of a woman talking about sexism that they tried to be as cartoon-villain sexist as physically possible.

The Kickstarter campaign raised $158,922 out of the $6,000 it had been looking for, and that has resulted in some slickly edited, dazzlingly intelligent videos. Anita is a delight to watch. Her arguments are fantastic. In this particular series, she talks about the trope of the damsel in distress, which has been repeated ad nauseum in countless video games over the past thirty years. Female is kidnapped, male must save her. Female is murdered, male must avenge her. Female is murdered, male must save their daughter. Female is kidnapped, male tries to save her and finds out she’s been dead all along. Female is kidnapped and turned somehow evil/damaged/diseased, male must kill her for her own good.

One of the interesting things that Anita mentioned in the video is that in this sexist trope, it isn’t a game with men and women on opposing teams. Women aren’t the opponents; they are the ball. They are kidnapped/murdered because they are the possession of the hero, and he needs to be motivated to complete a task.

I was speaking with a friend the other day about Oz the Great and Powerful. I mentioned how L. Frank Baum had supported women’s suffrage. His wife and mother-in-law had been suffragists, and he had written the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with a female protagonist and villain because of his support of this cause. The producer of Oz the Great and Powerful decided to do an origin story about the Wizard because “I learned about how hard it was to find a fairy tale with a good strong male protagonist.” Yes. You read that right. He felt that male protagonists were rare. Anyway, my friend said that the movie makes Oz look like a dick, and isn’t that the point of feminism–to make men look bad? The fact that there are people out there who literally believe that is shocking to me, but I think it showcases this mistaken belief people have that this is a game of men vs. women. It’s not. This isn’t some sort of competition where only one team can win. You don’t gain points by making the other team look bad. The truth of the matter is that, as said before, women aren’t even competing in this game. Women are just objects to be acted upon.

This is the idea behind the Bechdel Test. (Recap: the three qualifications are 1) are there at least two named women 2) who have a conversation 3) about something other than a man?) It’s an incredibly simple test, and it’s mainly just trying to verify whether the women in a work of fiction are actually allowed to have plot-centric discussions on their own. If they’re not, why aren’t they? Is it because when the women get together, it’s only to gush about how awesome that male hero is? Is it because there aren’t enough women to fill both positions in a dialogue?

If a work of fiction doesn’t have any women in it, why doesn’t it? Even if your story has a good in-universe reason (all the spaceship pilots are male because spaceships can only be started by sticking your cock in the ignition) and some worldbuilding to explain why that’s the case (cock-based technology really took off in the 22nd century, cutting women out of the job market) the fact remains that women still make up half the population and probably have something to say about that. They’ve come up with workarounds for it. (And hell, there are some transwomen who’d make badass pilots and oh god I think I want to read this?)

Before I veer too wildly off topic, I’ll summarize my point. Women aren’t just possessions to be shunted back and forth between hero and villain. The particular trope of the damsel in distress, as well as the greater problem of the lack of female characters as anything other than object and love interest, is not only a damaging cliche but a really boring one. Tropes in and of themselves aren’t bad, but if you’re a content creator, you should at least be aware of how prevalent they are, and come up with a really good reason why you’re still using them. Better yet? Come up with something new. Ideally something that has a realistic representation of gender demographics. Ask yourself if your gender balance is close to 50/50, and if not, why not? No but seriously though, why not?

While you’re at it, check out this io9 article on the 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding. Pretty spot-on advice.


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