Damsels in Distress: my own regressive crap

Hello: this article is in place of the usual Friday New Year’s Resolution update. Next week will feature God of War, but in the meantime I thought I would write about Feminist Frequency, a new YouTube series that recently started up to dissect female tropes in video games.

Having witnessed the evolution of Anita Sarkeesian’s attempt to explore female tropes in video games, from her Kickstarter proposal and the rabid and quite disgusting response to same from the cesspits of the internet – attempts to get her removed from Kickstarter, vile emails and mini games encouraging the player to punch images of her –  to the uplifting message wherein sense and empathy prevailed, with Sarkeesian eventually achieving her target funding before exceeding it many times over.

It was a success story that I was glad to see emerge, especially considering the number of similar stories that begin with a woman making a comment about video games only to retreat due to rape and death threats. Not, as in this case, an inspiring TED speech.

Sarkeesian’s first video is now out, one year since her original announcement, and I have been seeing a lot of mixed opinions in response. The main non-stupid complaint – believe me, there are plenty of stupid ones out there – is that it appears to be a string of facts without much in the way of analysis, and besides these facts were already well known.

Yeah, it is the old boobs and butt in the same shot routine.

Yeah, it’s the old boobs and butt in the same shot routine.

Personally I thought that presenting the facts was a great entry-level introduction to video games and their skewed bias toward teenage males, and I imagine that I am not the only one who didn’t know that Dino Planet was originally planned with a female protagonist before she was replaced by a male.

Another criticism that is not completely invalid, on the basis that it isn’t a bunch of cis white male bullshit, is that Sarkeesian isn’t particularly passionate about her delivery. This is something that I feel is perfectly fine. She is attempting deliver news, not to be another blowhard on YouTube; as we all know there are enough of those out there.

A lesser point of criticism that has been brought up is that at one moment she does slip out of auditor/professor mode and refers to Double Dragon Neon as ‘regressive crap’.

Funnily this seems to have sparked the ire of a few people. Some are fans of the game; others that feel Sarkeesian’s statement is at odds with the message she is trying to convey. Further critical questions circle the latter, such as why is she trying to be funny, why is she stating an opinion, why doesn’t she stick to the facts, and why is my money being spent on this.

I don’t have a way to placate these critics, nor do I have answers for these points. I am sure that I could respond with something but I feel it would be better for Sarkeesian to address these comments herself if she feels that she needs to.

What matters to me is that this comment about Double Dragon Neon also sparked something inside of me that led to a moment of introspection, one that I found far more effective than anything else in the video.

The moment in which she casually, and perhaps in an unprofessional way, referred to Wayforward’s love letter to the Eighties video game featuring the Lee brothers as ‘regressive crap’, prompted an initial knee-jerk reaction to act on the defensive.

But on reflection the trope that Double Dragon exhibits – that the woman captured at the beginning of the game is a damsel in distress; an object to be fought over rather than being a person in her own right – is regressive crap.

In my head, for a moment, I excused the portrayal and perpetuation of this trope as being a direct call back to the original Double Dragon. It was acceptable because the game was based on something from an older time; this re-issue was just staying faithful to these roots.

Except that this argument doesn’t wash one bit.

Back in 2000 I introduced one of my female friends to the original Night of the Living Dead. At the time I considered it to be a horror classic that had set the template for modern zombie films; a template that had barely changed over the following sixty years. I felt it was also extremely progressive in its views, featuring a black lead and a commentary on racial segregation in the USA, so I was fairly convinced it was going to win her over.

We got as far as a group of people holing themselves up in a house and attempting to defend themselves from a zombie onslaught. I sensed that she was getting irritated and asked her what was up. She replied:

“The woman in this is dumb.”

Night of the dead

In the five or six times I’d previously watched this film I’d never noticed that the only female character was indeed dumb. While all the men made an effort to protect what was theirs she spent the entire time freaking out and being useless; a damsel in distress from almost the opening of the film.

I tried to defend the film but my friend had a point: the character was weak and only a plot point rather than a driver of her own story.

This was something that clearly affected Romero, the writer and director of the film, because when the film was remade in the 1990s – helmed by the special effects maestro Tom Savini – Romero rewrote the script with a stronger female lead; one capable of protecting herself.

I still think that the original film, despite its flaws, is a better film, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are some things which do not need to be repeated.

Sarkeesian’s video is good: it deserves to be widely viewed. This one moment in which she is less than formal will, I imagine, be something that people pick on as a means to ignore the rest of the good work in there. As so frequently occurs in the dissemination of an argument on the internet, rather than tackle the higher level points one minor issue will be drawn out, broken down and then used as a tool to debunk the whole. For me, though, that one slip was the most illuminating.