When Anita Sarkeesian first started her kickstarter, it was like kicking a hornet’s nest. She received a lot of hate for her proposed video series named “Tropes vs. Women”. The video would look at the various tropes which depict women in a poor light and to inform the viewers of the misrepresentation of women. Gaming communities often scorned her, but she was equally praised and defended for her aim. Ultimately, the reason for both her praise and ridicule was not the content or her proposal or kickstarter specifically, but rather that she was a woman voicing her opinion.
There are few articles or videos on the internet that serve to justify the praise or contempt. That is not to say that none exist. A particularly well presented two-part video series about Sarkeesian by Cameron Rodgers is one example of the few that justify the negative attention that she has received.
Before I truly begin, I would like readers to be made aware that criticism towards Sarkeesian is not criticism towards the feminist movement within the videogame industry. Whilst it may be great that “videogame feminism” is getting the attention that it deserves, that is no reason for her to be above criticism. In fact, she owes it to feminists to ensure that she does this video series right.
The first episode of Tropes vs. Women amounts to little more than a history lesson involving the “Damsel in Distress” trope, contributing little which cannot be found on TVTropes. What’s more, Anita Sarkeesian often fails to acknowledge the context of the scene which often justifies the use of the trope, a context that even conflicts with both the disempowerment of the character as a woman in which she claims the trope invokes, and the rendering of a female character as nothing but a plot device or object.
Star Fox Adventures is the third iteration of the Star Fox series, in which a young, female character named Krystal successfully rescues one of six spirits that serve as the important plot point through-out the game. Upon saving this spirit, Krystal is imprisoned within a crystal until she is rescued by the protagonist, Fox. Thanks to Krystal having the foresight to leave both her staff and instructions on how to use the staff for Fox to discover, Fox is able to rescue her in return.
Sarkeesian fails to explore this trope in relation to the character of Krystal. Sure enough, Krystal requires rescue from Fox, but it is also true that Fox was aided by Krystal in his venture — a fact that Sarkeesian fails to elaborate on. Krystal is neither disempowered by her captivity, ‘nor is she defined by her role as “the damsel in distress”. The purpose in even raising this title as the introducing example of the trope is questionable. Krystal may have lost her role as a protagonist, but she became a re-occurring character in the new protagonist’s franchise and still retains a strong role and agency within the plot. This title feels like it would have been better if served as an example in a discussion about the lack of strong female protagonists. Instead, it just doesn’t have as much impact here.
Similarly, The Legend of Zelda is another title in Sarkeesian claims disempowers the lead female. The titular character, Princess Zelda, is quite often kidnapped and must be rescued by the series protagonist, Link. However, Zelda is often quite useful in the story and aids Link whenever possible, thus why she needs disempowered. Sarkeesian points out that The Wind Waker‘s incarnation of Zelda — Tetra — becomes rendered useless when the character is revealed as a princess, failing to realise that it is entirely because Tetra is royalty. Similarly, Prince William was not permitted to participate in any real conflict because he is important, and that it would be dangerous. It’s completely logical and also a prime example of Sarkeesian continuing to disregard the context behind such events within the plot.
The “trope” in of itself is not a bad thing, so long as it serves a purpose within the plot and does not define the character. The effects of a trope’s function in the story cannot be explained without first understanding the context, which is something that Sarkeesian repeatedly fails to do. Instead of explaining the consequences of the trope on the character, Sarkeesian often opts to just claim that it disempowers them. Why does the trope disempower Tetra? What purpose does her kidnap serve for the story? Why must Tetra be kidnapped, and not some other character? These are all valuable and arguably vital questions to evaluate the trope, and Sarkeesian explores none of them. Consequently, the only contribution offered is that The Legend of Zelda uses this trope.
Whenever it suits her, Sarkeesian disregards rules in which she applies to another title. She is discontent with Tetra being imprisoned right at the start of a handheld spinoff to the series, albeit with little explanation as to the damage to the character that this would have. Despite using a handheld spinoff to her advantage, when discussing the Super Mario series, Sarkeesian doesn’t even properly acknowledge that Princess Peach, the regular damsel in distress of the franchise, has her own title. Super Princess Peach is a DS game in which Peach must rescue the kidnapped Mario and Luigi, reversing the trope. At the end of the video, Sarkeesian also disregards the significance of these female characters obtaining their own handheld title spinoffs, instead wanting a “full blown” console release.
It is a known fact that developing a videogame is a risky endeavour. When the largest demographic is male, it’s safe to assume that the safest approach for a business is to target the male audience. When female gamers are given an opportunity show that there is a demand for female protagonists, it’s an absolute waste to disregard the potential. The industry will not improve if voices such as Sarkeesian ignore titles like Super Princess Peach when Nintendo finally decide to throw them a bone. It may not have been a perfect solution, but it was certainly a starting point. Instead of exploring how this example has great potential to empower female protagonists in relation to the “Damsels in Distress” trope, Sarkeesian opts to omit any real praise for when the industry actually addresses the theme that she is discussing.
Similarly to Sarkeesian’s approach to The Legend of Zelda, the function of the trope is poorly evaluated within the Super Mario series. While the title offers little context within the story for Peach’s kidnappings, it also almost entirely lacks a story. Princess Peach’s role may be a motivation for the protagonist, and thus by extension the player, but every character serves their role within a game or story. Characters do not just exist. They must have reason. So long as the character is not defined by the trope, the trope is quite often justifiable. Is Peach defined by this trope? What does her existence contribute to the game and story? What consequence does this use of the trope have on the gaming industry and women? These are questions that Sarkeesian’s video would benefit answering or even just exploring. It’s yet another example of a title being raised up for using the trope and Sarkeesian failing to actually do anything with it. Readers may have their own answers to these questions, but Sarkeesian offers none of them.
Sarkeesian’s first episode of Tropes vs. Women forgoes context, misrepresenting the offending scenes and misleading the viewer. Furthermore, the video lacks any real contribution to the growing discussion regarding sexism in videogames. There may be dire consequences of the trope’s overuse, but Sarkeesian’s inability to explore the trope properly fails to highlight this. Ultimately, the majority of the video simply amounts to pointing out videogames that use the trope, as opposed to actively discussing it. As a start for her video series in which almost seven thousand supporters offered money to her cause, it is not an ideal beginning.
Edit: Fixed a couple of stupid typos and repeated words. Also, later removed use of the phrase “this feminist” to refer to Sarkeesian, as it is more negative than intended. Changed a pretty terrible line (“That is not to say that there are any that exist.”); even in context it was dreadful. Added “for a business” to third last paragraph.
Drawn attention Super Princess Peach being praise-worthy and a success in relation to this particular trope. There are flaws of which could be explored in later titles, but are not relative to the specific theme of the video.
These changes are being made as a direct result of some misconceptions consequent of the sensitive nature of the article.