Feminist Frequency has created an excellent must-watch video on the lack of strong, female characters in gaming, specifically the “damsel in distress” trope. The video begins with the story of Krystal, the fierce and magical protagonist of the game Dinosaur Planet.
The narrator of the video, Anita Sarkeesian, describes Krystal as she was originally meant to be:
The game was to star a 16 year old hero named Krystal as one of two playable protagonists. She was tasked with traveling through time, fighting prehistoric monsters with her magical staff, and saving the world. She was strong, she was capable, and she was heroic.
But as development neared completion, the strategy for the game changed. It was rewritten and redesigned, released in 2002 as StarFox Adventures for the GameCube. Sarkeesian describes the new incarnation:
Krystal has been transformed into a damsel in distress and spends the vast majority of the game trapped inside a crystal prison waiting to be rescued by the new hero, Fox McCloud. The in game action scenes that were originally built for Krystal were converted to feature Fox instead. Crystal is given a skimpier, more sexualized outfit.
Here’s the new Krystal.
The tale of how Krystal went from protagonist of her own epic adventure to the passive victim in someone else’s game illustrates how the damsel in distress trope disempowers female characters and robs them of the chance to be heroes in their own right.
Watching what happened to Krystal on a few minutes of video, I felt like I was watching what’s happened to women throughout history; we’re minor characters in a story that someone else has written. Sarkeesian says: “I’ve heard it said that ‘In the game of patriarchy women are not the opposing team, they are the ball.’ ”
Here’s how the video goes on to describe the “damsel in distress” trope that dominates our cultural mythology:
The Damsel in Distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing the core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.
Think about how the weak and passive female is so intricately built into our cultural narrative. She’s in stories we’ve heard from birth, from Greek mythology to the Bible to Hollywood. She’s in the books and films that win our highest awards and accolades.
Because the human brain put events into context in order to understand them, this repetitive narrative gets embedded into our minds. If this trope were just one story of many, there would be no issue. It’s the constant repetition, the ubiquity of this story line, especially in the fantasy world marketed to children, that’s so alarming. Girls and boys don’t get to see females act, make important choices, take healthy risks, and become leaders. This sexist narrative affects who we are, how we see each other, and who we become.
This video from Feminist Frequency shows you what happens when a character tries to break free of this restrictive narrative. She’s put right back into her crystal prison. How is Krystal going to get out of there when the guy who’s supposedly rescuing her is the problem? There’s only one way she can break free. She must write her own story.
Here’s the video:
You can read the transcript here.
Update: While making this video, Sarkeesian was the subject of a brutal and organized harassment campaign. On Feminist Frequency, she blogged:
In addition to the aggressive actions against me that I’ve already shared, the harassers launched DDoS attacks on my site, attempted to hack into my email and other social media accounts and reported my Twitter and YouTube accounts as “terrorism”, “hate speech” or “spam”. They also attempted to “dox” and distribute my personal contact info including address and phone number on various websites and forums (including hate sites).
Thank you, Sarkeesian, for having the courage to tell your story while people kept trying to shut you up. We all really need to hear it.
Another cool thing Sarkeesian did: she begun her video with this quote:
This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.
She likes games, got it? She likes to play them. She doesn’t want them to be sexist. She wants strong female protagonists. It’s not that fun attacking loveable characters who make up the fabric of America. And guess what? You can be a fan of “Ratatouille” and still be disheartened and discouraged that it’s yet another kids movie where females go missing. Unless we want to live on an island or a mountain top, this is the world we exist in, so stop telling women to shut up or get out already. Attempting to silence female voices– in games, movies, videos, or on the internet– won’t work anyway, because we won’t stop telling our own stories. That’s just human nature.
Update: My six year old daughter watched this video and totally ‘got it.’ Obviously, I’ve talked to her a lot about media literacy, but it was great to have her see this POV coming from someone other than her mom. This video is a great educational tool, and I hope that you show it to your kids.