This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
The damsel-in-distress trope in video games has been much maligned for portraying women as merely the kindling that make the glory of manhood burn bright. Imaginary men have been rescuing make-believe princesses from evil kings and dragons since the age of mythology, when Perseus put the kibosh on a sea monster.
But why are men so endlessly enamored with saving the girl and slaying the beast? You can explain it as a power fantasy, but why use this particular formula to play it out? Since the parable of boyish hero, kidnapped damsel, and evil tyrant originates in folklore and fairy tales, that's a good place to start asking questions.
From a psychoanalytical point of view, the fairy tales featuring the triad of hero-damsel-villain are essentially Oedipal in nature. Meaning, in Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, respectively, Peach and Zelda are symbolic mothers to the male protagonist heroes of Mario and Link, with tyrant kings Bowser and Ganon standing in as fathers who repeatedly attempt to take the mother's affection away from the hero. As the late Freudian psychologist Bruno Bettelheim put it in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales: "Oedipal fantasies of glory are given body in tales where heroes slay dragons and rescue maidens."
University of California professor Allen Johnson, a man who holds one PhD in psychoanalysis and another one in anthropology, studied hundreds of folk stories around the world for his book Oedipus Ubiquitous: The Family Complex in World Folk Literature. I speak to him over the phone, and he tells me: "When you are looking at a story or a mythical thing, like a computer game, they are trying to tap into some of these mythical tropes, these mythical key stories that show up again and again around the world."
Johnson says that while in the West the Oedipal story is usually told symbolically, he found that in "forager and marginal" societies around the world it often plays out plainly and literally, with no resorting to subtext. "[The hero] gets his mother," Johnson says, "and the mother is really happy about it and they have great sex."
More technologically advanced societies tend to hide the uncomfortable seed of the story, according to this line of thinking, but there's still enough there for the unconscious to intuit, and that's what gets its hook into males, even very young boys for whom the sexual element isn't a factor.
"The boy will say, 'I want to marry mommy,' and everybody laughs, but the feelings, in this theory, don't go away." —Allen Johnson
"You could say it's not sexual [at that stage], and I'd buy that," Johnson tells me. "It's too primitive, too early to be sexual. But if you're a boy, you want the mother all to yourself when you're about three or four years old. The boy will say, 'I want to marry mommy,' and everybody laughs. And then he grows up and he doesn't marry mommy, but the feelings, in this theory, don't go away. We grow up and the feelings stay in some place inside of us."
When we get to a certain age, Johnson explains, the idea of your father hugging and kissing your mother becomes alarming. That's when the urge to destroy Bowser or Ganon might come into the picture. "When we play a game in which some of these situations are symbolically created, we can have some of those old feelings safely. We can have those feelings and just get very excited about the game: 'Hey, I won!'"
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I tell Johnson that the damsel-in-distress trope has come under substantial fire in gaming culture for its depiction of women. "We may be reinforcing images of femininity that emphasize their vulnerability," he says, "and how they need strong men to protect them, and those kinds of things are open to criticism, I think."
One of the last things Johnson tells me is that, indeed, "Oedipus is ubiquitous"—a comment in stark contrast to what Dr. Jack Zipes, who's written extensively on fairy tales and folklore and someone I also contacted to discuss the Oedipus complex, tells me.
"There is no scientific evidence that there's any type of complex like that," he tells me, frankly. "We cannot prove anything that's extremely gender-specific. It's a question of nurture and nature. That's why the Oedipus complex for me, and other things that Freud wrote, about hysteria and so on, has turned out to be very questionable."
But then, what is our reason for compulsively repeating the damsel-in-distress stories? Zipes says that, first of all, folklorists don't use the "damsel in distress" term. To them, it's the story of the Persecuted Heroine, a " tale type," he explains. He then surprises me with a darker reasoning as to why humanity seems obsessed with repeating these stories of kidnapped, persecuted women:
"Unfortunately, it's because for thousands of years men have been raping and violating women, who are weaker biologically than men, and they take advantage of women in all sorts of dastardly ways. You can use the term Oedipus complex or Electra complex, but the fact is that we humans have brutal sides to ourselves. We do all sorts of things to one another. And to try to categorize these drives that we have, that are based on desire and lust, all of us, seems to me limiting. All the Jungian categories of archetypes are totally ridiculous, and do not apply to the particular instances that human beings experience in their lives. You can impose, if you want, psychoanalytical theory or Jungian theory on fairy tales, but it doesn't shed light really on what these stories are about."
Zipes goes into further detail, about our inhumane past: "When cavemen went raiding, and found women somewhere, they raped them. They violated them. They killed them for food, who knows? Women have to do all sorts of things to protect themselves from their families, within their families and also outside their families. And young boys, too, have to protect themselves from being exploited by their parents."
"We continue to develop notions about sex that put women at a certain disadvantage." —Jack Zipes
Zipes has never actually played Super Mario Bros., so I explain that there was essentially no story to the game other than a princess getting kidnapped by a monster, and a hero that needed to save her. Was there a rape subtext in this tale type?
"Definitely," he says, before naming several other fairy tales with rape subtexts, such as Little Red Riding Hood. "We have not, in our civilizing periods, managed to deal with the unfair way we treat weaker people, in particular women, and we continue to develop notions about sex that put women at a certain disadvantage. As long as we have this problem we're going to have all types of versions and variants of this same type of tale."
These games are traditionally aimed at boys, so what about the heroes such as Mario or Link, who set out to save the damsel? How do they fit into this perspective?
"We still live in a patriarchal society," Zipes says. "We control the film industry—'we' being, basically, white males, at least in America and other places like Europe. We dominate in businesses, corporations, cultural views, and so on, and we want to see ourselves as heroes, as saving, as protective, and we want to also posit ourselves in a very positive way. We want to demonstrate that there's something good about us, and that we will defend our women, who 'can't defend themselves,' and we want to save our countries. So you get these dashing heroes who are able to do these amazing things."
Perhaps there are uncomfortable psychological elements to these tales from classic video games that relate to the unconscious mind of, at least, young, straight men. And maybe these quintessential stories, evolved from fairy tales and myths and repeatedly depicted in games, tell of the historical sexual evils of men that echo back to prehistory.
Either way, there might be more than just fetch quests and boss battles for you to ponder the next time you raise your Master Sword on your way to murder a king.
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