As part of my viewing schedule I was pointed to the first video in FeministFrequency's new series Tropes vs Women in Video Games entitled "Damsel in Distress" this prompted a response from the blogger Thunderf00t called "Feminism versus Facts". Oh me oh my this is the "Understanding is a three edged sword" type of conflict. Both can be accused of viewing things through their own belief systems and drawing the conclusions they want, but is one more 'right' than the other?
As Thunderf00t takes issue with the very title I'll start there and to do so requires an understanding of what a "trope" is. Put simply a trope is a recurring theme that appears in multiple formats (normally for entertainment) a major list of which can be found at TVTropes. It often acts as a shorthand plot-device negating the need for a lengthy or complicated back story in favour for an instantly recognisable motive or descriptor. In this specific instance the "Damsel in Distress" trope. There is a reverse of this the "Distressed Dude", but a short reading of the description shows up a difference
Compared to the Damsel in Distress, the Distressed Dude is somewhat more likely to save himself in the end, to be saved by someone of the same sex, or, if saved by a woman, to be saved by one using her traditional, feminine strengths, rather than by someone using a more direct approach.In other words the Distressed Dude is not the norm and it is this that FeministFrequency (FF) is pointing out rather then what Thunderf00t describes as a strawman of attacking all tropes. Indeed FF makes this very point in that when a male character is incarcerated they are the ones to initiate escape, but a female placed in the same predicament has to wait to be rescued; as FF puts it - the dude is the actor and the damsel the acted upon.
It is this description that the damsel is simply an object that also riles Thunderf00t; and he falls back on what makes this a trope in that the Damsel in Distress is what provides a motivation for the male protagonist that everyone can understand and sympathise with. Yet he fails to realise that this isn't the entire basis of the trope; the damsel is normally helpless. In being so there really is no difference between her as a conscious entity and an object. If it's possible to switch the damsel for, say, the hero's favourite guitar and not alter the plot of the game in the slightest then what is the difference? Only perhaps in the emotional value placed upon each, which is what makes Damsel in Distress the shorthand it is.
Thunder00t then tries to point out that the very first game example FF uses (Double Dragon) is flawed as the end sequence shows the 'helpless' Damsel delivering the final blow to her captor. Again here he misses the point. That sequence is not part of the game. It is not initiated by the player; the suddenly non-helpless damsel displays none of this ability at any other point until the player (maybe) reaches the very end - it is, in fact, a revenge kick. This is letting the damsel get the last hit in on the villain after the dudes have rendered him harmless; it's patronising.
So in these matters Thunderf00t gets things wrong, but does he gets things right?
FF uses a scene from the game Dragon's Lair to demonstrate the Ditzy Blonde. Thunderf00t, quite rightly, reverses this. Rather than the helpless Damsel in Distress instead we have the Too Incompetent to Operate a Blanket Male who needs a full explanation that cages have keys and that he'll need one to open the cage. The damsel becomes the explanatory plot device explaining things to the dumb male who can only hit things to solve his problems; anyone familiar with the current crop of adverts will recognise the male being portrayed. So we can point to sexist tropes being present in a large number of games for both male and female, but is it true to say that the male tropes tend to be positive (action-takers) over female tropes (helpless)? Well yes, but there's a good reason for that which is again where Thunderf00t comes in.
Game-making is a business. The idea being to sell games to make money and, like-it-or-not, the majority of game-players are male. So it makes sense to use male-positive tropes over negative ones. Does this mean they have to use female-negative ones? No, as I've said it's a shorthand and the tropes that most enhance male-positive ones are female-negative ones. It's not a patriarchal conspiracy merely the path of least resistance. But there's nothing stopping pairing male-positive and female-positive together is there? Well there kind of is and ironically it's some of the feminists themselves that are acting against that.
Take FF's example of the re-made for a male lead game and the words she uses to describe the original female protagonist
"She was tasked with travelling through time, fighting prehistoric monsters with her magical staff, and saving the world. She was strong; she was capable and she was heroic."A description that gets thrown back by Thunderf00t who points out that FF herself describes female heroes as being forced to take on 'male roles' to be accepted. In other words if you have a female hero who acts in the same way as the male hero that's not an act of feminism. On the other hand display a female lead who acts in a 'weaker' manner and the complaints rain in of stereotyping women. Put simply unless the game is designed from the bottom-up as being for a female (the new Tomb Raider, Beyond Good and Evil etc.) the game makers can't win.
Given that, and as I've already pointed out the majority male market, there's little wonder that any females that are playable are little more than pallette-swapped males. It's possible that male players would be happy playing such female-orientated games, but why take the risk when there's a known formula that works?
In conclusion FF is right to point out that there are female-negative tropes that need examining, but at this point offers no solutions; particularly any that would work within the real-world of business. Thunder00t is right to point this out, but fails to see the underlying perpetuation of female-negative tropes as a problem at all. Both right, both wrong; and I bet neither willing to budge on their positions.