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Feminism And Videogames: A Look At Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women Series

Prominent women from the gaming community give their verdict on Anita Sarkeesian's Damsels in Distress video.

by Sarah Brin
May 10 2013, 11:00am

Remember Anita Sarkeesian? You know, the lady from Feminist Frequency who started up a Kickstarter to fund the online video series Tropes vs. Women in Videogames? Well, if you do, you probably also remember the insane backlash she received from leagues of misogynist dudes, including a series of DDoS attacks on her websites, countless rape and death threats, and even a flash game artfully titled Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian. But in one of those moments where the internet awesomely mobilizes in the face of injustice, Sarkeesian's Kickstarter raised $158,922—more than 26 times her initial goal of $6,000.

Sarkeesian's Kickstarter victory was back in June of last year. And, after a slew of WHERE IS ANITA SARKEESIAN discussion posts and video diatribes criticizing the delayed production, Damsels in Distress, the first video in the Tropes vs. Women in Videogames series, was released on March 7th.

In the video, Sarkeesian deftly performs an impressively detailed dissection of the damsel in distress trope, which she defines as a reduction of female characters "to a state of helplessness" from which they require "rescuing by a typically male hero for the benefit of his story arc." Citing loads of examples from throughout videogame and pop culture history, including Donkey Kong, Star Fox Adventures, Double Dragon Neon and many more, she keeps editorial to a minimum, letting the game footage speak for itself.

Sarkeesian's analysis is scholarly yet approachable. Showing clip after clip, the series host clearly and methodically builds a case that many classic videogames frame female characters simply "as a possession that's stolen from the protagonist." Sarkeesian continues by noting that frequently, "the hero's fight to retrieve his stolen property acts as a lazy justification" for gameplay and that "at its heart, the damsel trope is not really about women at all," but rather that female characters "simply become the central object in a conflict between men." 

The captured Princess Daphne in Dragon's Lair

Towards the end of the episode Sarkeesian mentions that the next installation in the series will include a handful of exceptions to the damsel trope, which may or may not include the female leads Sheik from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (briefly mentioned earlier in the episode), Chelle and GLaDOS of Portal, Commander Shepard of Mass Effect and hopefully even Carmen Sandiego and Mavis Beacon. Perhaps Sarkeesian will note the phenomenon in which the feminity of most of the aforementioned characters (barring Mme. Sandiego) is somehow disconnected or obscured from their physical representations.

But is Sarkeesian preaching to the choir? Clocking in at just under 24 minutes, Damsels in Distress is fairly long for an internet video, and it lacks the fast editing, punchy antics, and whatever other magic qualities deem a video meritorious of viral linking. Sarkeesian has deliberately chosen a specific format and voice that makes very few concessions to the casual viewer. This series is not designed to transform non-believers, but rather, it is a tool for those of us who are already feminists and/or games lovers to sharpen our rhetorical axes or minds or whatever it is that we use to fight for good cultural production.

As expected, Damsels in Distress has prompted a plethora of aggressive response videos, featuring narrators claiming that "there's not a market" for videogames with strong female leads and criticizing Sarkeesian for disabling comments on her YouTube page. These responses, as well as the aforementioned threats of violence, might be part of why Sarkeesian has been laying low and keeping her internet presence to a minimum lately. And it might also be part of why she hasn't responded to my interview request. Another reason might be the insane pressure that comes along with being a Kickstarter success story. Opening up the fundraising process to public support makes projects even more vulnerable to public criticism, and the relative anonymity afforded by online platforms means that things can get nasty rather quickly. 

One of many response videos to Damsels in Distress, titled Who’s the Damsel Now?

However, despite the heightened scrutiny that accompanies crowdfunded projects, there's the positive outcome of having a larger audience base and reaching a more distributed public. As demonstrated by the #1reasontobe panel at this year's Game Developer's Conference, life has certainly not become easier for women working in the videogame industry, but the internet is certainly a growing platform for them to speak out, grow their allies, and to cultivate a more inclusive game design community. With any luck, we will continue to see new real-life heroes emerge who bring equal parts adventure, fun, and gender equality to game design.

We asked several prominent women writers, artists and critics in the videogame industry to weigh in on these videos and Sarkeesian's mission at large. Check out their responses in full below:

KRIS LIGMAN, Senior Editor for Critical Distance and writer for Gamasutra

Here is the thing about Anita Sarkeesian's work, for me. Were it not for the sustained online harassment campaign against her, were it not for the fact that she has become a symbol far more than an individual, I don't think I would care for her videos too much. I saw a few of her Tropes vs Women videos prior to the games Kickstarter and found them succinct but not especially useful to me, as someone who is usually neck-deep in that stuff anyway. I'd consider showing her videos to someone just getting into an academic frame of mind, for example.

But BECAUSE Sarkeesian has become this symbol, because she's been instrumentalized from both sides to serve as either a rallying point or the face of The Enemy, I feel it's become impossible to engage her work fairly on its own merits. I've enjoyed the one video of the games series she's released so far, but principally for what it represents, as the end product from a woman who has had to fight a tremendous uphill battle and face obscene amounts of abuse just to do what should be thought of as a pretty innocuous little video series. I appreciated some of the history bits she brought forth, but her conclusions, yes, were pretty much preaching to the choir as far as I was concerned. I can't speak for anyone else there.


I have a lot of thoughts about Sarkeesian's work. I think it's very important that people are considering the power of games to communicate/create/reinforce social and moral value. Games that are more narrative function almost like films—allowing the player to enact sequences and participate in the experience as opposed to just viewing it (like film). I think in that process of participation, players forget that the story being told (whether fictional or based in reality) is being told by a subjective voice and that the decisions that the developers make about what they include impacts children's ideas about societal norms (I know this sounds silly, especially to people who don't play games... but it's true).  

Sarkeesian is digging into the history of these regurgitated norms, particularly the reinforcement of gender-based stereotypes in female characters. I think it's incredibly important that people are deconstructing games in general. I think that some of the male gaming community's backlash against her Kickstarter was a huge deal—I also felt the reverberation effect of it on increased attention toward my projects. The fact that men were posting images of her face beaten up, harassing her, and claiming that her asking for money for her project was unjust reinforced the need for projects like hers and what a threat she is to misogyny in gaming culture.

A video by artist Angela Washko where she explores the sexism in World of Warcraft communities.

LEIGH ALEXANDER, editor-at-large at Gamasutra and The Creators Project contributor

I think little by little we're making progress in terms of gender inequity, at least to the extent it's a clear area of focus and many more people are raising their voices and refusing to back down. The amount of push-back that attracts is very painful for anyone who is outspoken, and we clearly have a long way to go. Anita is carrying an incredible burden of negative attention, stalkers, harassers, threat—even for raising the issue at all, and as a fellow woman in games that's tough for me to see. 

I haven't agreed with all of her opinions on games, but I definitely think Anita's work can be seen as a focal point for the increased conversation and cultural change. I have a lot of hope, too—I think the reason guys obsessed with traditional gaming and geek culture online are so virulent is that they never really had social power to begin with. They're scared of women and have been hiding in these dark, generally negative power-fantasy worlds, and now they think women are going to take those worlds away from them. 

At any rate, they're losing. They had the delusion of grandeur gleaned from the past decade's economic growth, but the commercial games business is shrinking again, because everyone but these people are now grown-ups who aren't still obsessed with how they were picked on in high school. Games will absolutely have to reject their hostile little niche and appeal to more people if they want to be financially viable. The core gamer just isn't relevant anymore, which is probably why he's pitching such a fit. 


Anita Sarkeesian
Tropes vs. Women in Videogames